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Afghans Learning to Be All They Can Be

Military: Starting small, U.S. and French troops are teaching 1,800 men how to be disciplined soldiers for the Asian nation's fledgling army.


KABUL, Afghanistan — Lying on their backs at a military academy compound here, about 30 bearded men in green camouflage fatigues do bicycle pedals in the air before turning on their stomachs for a rough approximation of push-ups.

Welcome to the new Afghan National Army, troop strength 1,800 and, ever so slowly, growing.

From these humble beginnings, the country's transitional government under President Hamid Karzai hopes to create a nonfactional, multiethnic force of 60,000 to 80,000 that would be able to take on enemies of a much larger size.

The idea promulgated by Karzai and supported by Western countries is that a nonfactional army equipped by various donor countries would break Afghanistan out of its pattern of civil war and conflict among private armies fighting for land, people and resources.

A viable national army would mean extending security to all corners of the country, not just the area around this capital city now protected by international peacekeepers. And having that security would, many believe, build support for the government and undermine those people chafing for the return of the Taliban, who at least kept the streets safe.

The biggest question mark is the country's warlords, who have militias of their own. How are they going to respond to the upstart national corps?

And, almost as worrying, will the men here in training, all bound by ethnic and tribal loyalties, be able to transcend them to serve a democratically elected civil government?

Lt. Col. Kevin M. McDonnell, commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, which since April has been carrying out training with the French army, was hearing no such doubts.

"This is the Afghan National Army," he said flatly. And training "is going great."

McDonnell acknowledged that warlords could be threatened by the emergence of a national army, but that is no reason not to keep going, he said. "The longer this continues, the more credibility we'll have.

"A lot of people have come into Afghanistan and made promises, a lot of them. The Afghan people are waiting to see if the concept of the Afghan National Army really works. They are waiting to see if the international community has the patience and persistence to make this work."

And he believes that the army can be a crucible to break down some of the divisions in the country. "As time goes by," he said, "the ethnic and tribal ties will start to fade."

At the training academy, the U.S. Special Forces, their bigger bulk and their desert camouflage distinguishing them from the thin Afghan soldiers in green, strode about barking instructions and giving encouragement as translators struggled to keep up. The trainees were using Kalashnikov rifles donated by Romania, Albania and Bulgaria.

The decision to not give them U.S. M-16s was because the Russian-designed automatic rifle is much more familiar in Afghanistan, having been the preferred weapon during the country's past decades of war, first against Soviet occupation and then for power among various factions.

One basic lesson has been how to aim a gun. Contrary to the image of the skilled fighter, many of the trainees had never used the sights on their weapons, said Maj. Steve Stover, a Pentagon public affairs officer.

The Afghan way had been to keep the gun on full automatic and simply spray the enemy.

Another lesson being taught is to suppress the Afghan idea that a soldier is loyal first of all to his commander.

"We tell them that they do not have to support any one person but the elected government of Afghanistan," Stover said.

On a recent September morning, two battalions in training--one in its sixth week under the aegis of the U.S. Special Forces, and one just starting under their French trainers--were assembled side by side outside their barracks. They were a study in contrasts--the one group in their smart battle-dress uniforms and caps lining up quickly and quietly, the other in a motley assortment of tunics, robes, hats and turbans, lounging insolently or stretched out on the ground waiting for something to happen.

Within a short time, the soldiers show potential, according to their U.S. trainers.

At a practice session to teach them how to fire mortars, after having had only two days' instruction, the recruits split into crews and safely assembled scores of Iranian-made 82-millimeter mortar rounds and began firing on targets as far as 2 1/2 miles away. (The risk of an accidental explosion made watching this exercise fairly terrifying.)

Through trial and error, they'd lay a round on their target after three or four tries, and--once they had hit their mark--follow it with a blitz of concussions echoing off the mountains beyond.

"They're doing super," said a lanky Special Forces officer who gave his name only as Timothy, who said the rounds were falling within about 35 yards of their target. "Using what they've got, they're doing pretty good."

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