Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Afghan Sgt. Maj. Barakatullah Kolistani, who trains army recruits, is confident that his fledgling soldiers are learning the discipline, strategic skills and marksmanship needed to defeat the Taliban.
But Kolistani, one of the base's senior enlisted soldiers, is worried about their proficiency in another key skill: driving. Particularly when it comes to the 8,000-pound-plus U.S.-supplied Humvee, the vehicle of choice in the nascent Afghan army.
He's not alone.
Afghan and American trainers at the NATO-run Kabul Military Training Center, where 10,000 recruits receive instruction at any given time, are shocked to discover just how bad the Afghans drive.
"We're losing them faster from vehicle accidents than combat," said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, commander of the 22,000-acre training center, a former Soviet base that still houses a graveyard for Soviet tanks.
More than half of Afghan army injuries result from vehicular accidents. Since 2005, 141 soldiers and recruits have died in rollovers and collisions, many caused by excessive speed, inability to negotiate curves or an unwillingness to yield to other vehicles.
In the next 14 months, Caldwell said, the training center plans to turn out as many graduates as it has in the last eight years. He knows that to reach that goal, he must emphasize driver education.
The center now has 10 instructors and provides 191 hours of classroom and on-the-road training. "Even then, it's been hard," Caldwell said.
The instructors come from several coalition partners. Reconnaissance classes are taught by Romanian soldiers; troops from Turkey teach preventive maintenance; Afghans demonstrate how to prepare chow.
U.S. Marines teach driver training.
About 80% of the recruits are illiterate. Many are from rural villages and have never steered a vehicle more complex than a horse-drawn cart. Those who have driven a car have, in many cases, done so primarily in the clogged, chaotic streets of Kabul, the nation's capital, where traffic resembles a demolition derby.
Even for vehicle-savvy young Americans, the Humvee is a challenge. It is wide and top-heavy and difficult to drive around corners; the braking system is demanding and the ride jarring.
Soon the U.S. will supply the Afghan army with 5,000 Humvees equipped with armored gun turrets and heavy plating meant to withstand the roadside bombs planted by insurgents.
Pickup trucks, also supplied by the Americans, present their own problem: Many Afghan soldiers seem oblivious to their comrades riding in the open bed. A common accident involves a driver hitting a bump at high speed, ejecting the passengers in the back.
In Helmand province, American instructors appeal to the Afghans' sense of masculinity in urging them to be cautious.
"They are very much a society of honor and shame," said retired Marine senior gunner Terry Walker, who runs the training camp. "Either one works for me."
The Kabul center has an enclosed track where instructors in the passenger seats of Humvees make sure the trainees have learned their classroom lessons.
Kolistani, who fought beside the legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud in his unsuccessful effort to keep the Taliban from taking power after Russian troops withdrew from Afghanistan more than two decades ago, knows that mastering the intricacies of the M-16 assault rifle is important.
But he would like even more hours devoted to driver training.
"To fight," he said, "you must drive."