RAMAZAN, Afghanistan — This remote village in the high desert of southern Afghanistan is home to six mud huts and 70 people. A few miles away, tucked behind two soaring escarpments, the settlement of Qazi contains four huts, 50 people and a few goats.
More than 100 Afghan army soldiers descended on the two villages one day last month looking for Taliban fighters. After a carefully scripted battle plan, the soldiers sealed the villages and searched every hut, shed, paddock and fighting-age male.
They found nothing -- no Taliban, no weapons, no documents, no bomb-making material. But in the eyes of the U.S. military advisors who set the raid in motion, the operation was a milestone.
For the first time in Afghanistan, the Americans said, the Afghan army had conducted a battalion-sized combat operation that combined logistics, mortars, scouts and infantry from three companies. It is the sort of operation that U.S. troops conduct routinely, but the fledgling Afghan army is just beginning to apply its training to real-life battlefields.
"We witnessed a little piece of history today," said U.S. Col. Martin Leppert, his face sunburned below his blond crew cut after a day spent supervising the operation in 120-degree desert heat.
The Afghan army, like the one being built and trained chiefly by the U.S. in Iraq, is the fulcrum for American strategy in both countries. U.S. forces will remain mired in Afghanistan and Iraq for years unless the two armies become strong and capable enough to fight on their own. For both Afghanistan and Iraq, the army is the one national institution potentially capable of projecting government authority and security.
The nascent Afghan effort could provide a signpost for the Iraqi army, despite significant differences in size and the nature of the insurgency each is fighting. If the Afghan army is still struggling in its fifth year of training, its halting progress suggests that the Iraqi army, in its third year, has a long way to go.
Men such as Leppert, 46, a full-time National Guard soldier from Wisconsin, are at the forefront of the Afghan training. Known as an ETT, for embedded training team, his 20 American trainers serve as mentors for their Afghan counterparts.
The training has evolved from putting raw recruits through basic training at a military center in Kabul, the capital, to conducting combat forays alongside U.S. or NATO units. Afghan battalions are a long way from being able to operate on their own, but trainers are trying to wean them from relying on the U.S. military for everything from carrying enough food and ammunition to setting up observation posts and mortar crews.
It is slow, frustrating work. Most Afghan soldiers are fearless fighters, but more than half are illiterate, with virtually no experience fighting in cohesive, disciplined units. Many recruits are too young to have fought in the country's numerous wars over the last quarter-century. Many older soldiers and officers fought the Soviets or the Taliban, but as guerrillas, not as part of a national army.
Today's army is very much a work in progress. Afghan commanders and soldiers complain of poor pay, faulty weapons, ammunition shortages and lack of protective gear. U.S. trainers, while praising Afghan soldiers for their bravery, complain of slovenly appearance, lack of discipline, petty thefts, mistreated equipment and infiltration of the army by Taliban spies or soldiers who sell information.
Afghan soldiers are armed with old AK-47 assault rifles collected from warlord militias. A first-year soldier earns $70 a month, less than a common laborer. (The top enlisted man makes $180 a month, a general $530 a month.)
The Afghan brigade commander, Col. Abdul Raziq, said he spent $250 of his $400 monthly salary on phone cards because his personal cellphone was his only reliable means of communicating with his commanders.
Soldiers have no body armor and no armored vehicles. Few even have helmets. They ride into battle in the dusty beds of U.S.-supplied Ford Ranger pickups, clutching their weapons while bouncing over rutted dirt trails. Their commanders scream orders into outdated U.S.-issue radios, forgoing code words or secure call signs.
"We're building the Afghan army on the fly," said Leppert, an aggressive, fast-talking officer known to fellow commanders as "Cowboy," as he watched from a ridgeline as Afghan troops swept toward the two villages. "We're building the airplane while the airplane is flying."
Operation Mountain Thrust, the 2-month-old campaign against a resurgent Taliban in southern Afghanistan, is being led by combat units from the U.S. and NATO countries, with the Afghan army in support.
From a forward operating base called Apache, Leppert supervises an Afghan brigade. His small hilltop base is protected by dirt berms, blast barriers, high walls, concertina wire and guard towers against Taliban fighters who control towns and villages across the arid Zabol province.