Taking aim at the Taliban

Taking Aim At the Taliban
Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007 By ARYN BAKER / KABUL
In Afghanistan, they are making an army from enemies. During the country's civil war nearly two decades ago, Ahmad Zai Waris and Zubir Ahmad fought on opposite sides of the lines, Waris heading a mujahedin group determined to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan and Ahmad as a soldier fighting for the Soviet-backed government. Now Waris and Ahmad live together on a military base in Afghanistan's eastern province of Kunar, hard against the Pakistan border. They often stay up late talking about guerrilla tactics of the past and how to use them against their new, shared adversary: the Taliban. "If we are strong, no enemy will be able to infiltrate our villages. If the enemy cannot attack the army from villages, then they will have to fight from the open, where they can be defeated easily. And if fighting is in the open areas, civilians will not be at risk," says Waris. "We are the future of Afghanistan."

Some 38,000 Afghan soldiers have been trained by U.S. and coalition forces since 2003, and many already accompany NATO troops on the ground. The U.S. and the international community have launched an ambitious plan to nearly double the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA), to 70,000; to build a fully functioning police force of 82,000; and to lay the groundwork for a National Afghan Air Corps by December 2008. But building a strong army in the middle of a war is a difficult undertaking. Much of the Afghan corps is young, illiterate and prone to desertion. Few units are judged capable of fighting the resurgent Taliban on their own.

If the U.S. hopes to salvage some success for its increasingly parlous enterprise in Afghanistan, that will have to change. At a time when U.S. and NATO forces have come under scathing criticism for civilian casualties--figures compiled by media groups and human-rights organizations indicate that since the beginning of the year, the number of civilians killed by Western forces is on a par with those killed by militants-- putting an Afghan face on the war has become an essential part of regaining the faith of the public. "All this anger about civilian casualties by foreign forces--it's just like Baghdad before everything started going downhill," says a Western official who has spent time in both countries. Because of a shortage of ground troops, the U.S. and NATO have relied on heavy and imprecise air strikes and artillery fire against the Taliban. Afghan forces, on the other hand, understand local culture and can live within communities, gathering intelligence and establishing security. "Every Afghan soldier that can fight effectively reduces U.S. boots on the ground, earns critical support from Afghans and has the potential to reduce collateral damage," says U.S. Ambassador William Wood.

But progress toward that goal remains halting, as a visit to the centralized Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) makes clear. Many recent recruits had never been to Kabul before and found it hard to adjust to barracks life and a fully planned schedule. Some were mystified by the socks that came with their uniforms. Like soldiers around the world, they complain particularly about the food. "The cauliflower is much better at home," says Mohammad Rahim, 18, as he picks over a meal of vegetable stew, rice and bread served out on the range where he's been drilling on targeted fire. For 18 weeks the recruits learn to march in formation, set up camp, shoot weapons, organize missions and react to ambushes. Staff Sergeant Robert Paul Rosell, a California National Guardsman who works as a mentor to the Afghan battalion led by Waris and Ahmad, says, "The hardest lesson is getting through the idea of 'one target, one shot.' They tend to go blacko on ammo." Other military trainers call it the "spray and pray" school of target practice.

Rosell has spent the past four months living at a small ANA base in eastern Afghanistan, about a mile (1.6 km) from the Pakistan border, part of a new program to embed U.S. soldiers with Afghan companies to ease the transition to full independence. It's rough work. For the first month of their deployment, the troops had no showers. Snow, mud and rain dogged every patrol, and landslides caused the collapse of a couple of barracks and a chow hall. The post's remote location meant that food supplies flown in by helicopter were sometimes delayed--and when they did come, half the vegetables had already rotted. Even the camp dogs, a white Lab named Musharraf and a mutt called Putin, were getting tired of potatoes. The Afghans held impromptu dance performances when patrols went well and cracked jokes when they didn't. "Even on the worst days, they'd still be smiling," says Rosell. "These guys can handle anything."

That's good, since the job of an ANA soldier is one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan. The dark khaki camouflage uniform, a gift from the U.S. government, may as well be a beacon for insurgent attacks. Several hundred ANA forces have died in combat since 2003, and a Taliban directive has decreed that ANA soldiers are infidels for their affiliation with the foreign forces. Insurgents prefer to target Afghan forces rather than NATO, knowing that the poorly prepared troops rarely drive armored vehicles and that they lack sufficient retaliatory firepower to mount a counteroffensive. The rising military death toll has made recruiting new soldiers even more difficult, says Colonel Karimullah, head of army recruiting in Kabul. "The boys themselves are not afraid," he says. "But it is their parents who make the decisions to let them join, and when they see all this on TV, they don't think it's worth it."

Though recruitment rates have risen from 600 to 2,000 a month, re-enlistment is still a problem. Only half the soldiers renew their contracts once their three-year tours are up. Many Afghans say their $100 monthly salaries are less than what they can make growing poppies or smuggling. The escape rate, the equivalent of going AWOL in the U.S., is an ongoing headache for both the American and Afghan commanders. After a grueling tour in eastern Afghanistan, Waris sent his men home for a month's holiday. Six weeks later, they were still trickling back to their base near Kabul. One soldier, already late by a week, had told friends he was afraid to return, for fear of the commander's anger. Waris had to promise he wouldn't punish the man before he would agree to come back. "What can I do?'' he asks. "We need these guys."

The Bush Administration has asked Congress for $8.6 billion to build up the Afghan National Security Forces over the next two years, with the international community contributing an additional $1.7 billion a year thereafter. (Considering that its fiscal 2005 GDP was $7.1 billion, Afghanistan can hardly be expected to foot the bill.) "It's a bargain," says Major General Robert Durbin, former commander of the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan. "We are spending $15 billion a year now for the presence of U.S. forces. So for a fraction of the cost, you have the Afghans pick up the fight. So we have the option, if we so choose, to reduce our forces, and that's a good return on investment." Staff Sergeant George Beck Jr., a U.S. soldier training new recruits at the KMTC, says, "It's all about crawl, walk, run. Right now the Afghan army is at a crawl. In a few more years it will walk, and in 10 it will run. Then we can all go home."

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