KABUL, Afghanistan — Rahmatullah, an illiterate young man with a wispy beard and remnants of teenage acne, may represent the last, best hope for Afghanistan's national army.
Wearing an old Russian-style helmet and firing an American M-16 automatic rifle, he squinted as his hissing rounds found their target on a firing range at the national training academy. At his elbow was his first cousin Azizullah, a functionally illiterate Pashtun tribesman who crouched to fire his own M-16.
The cousins decided in fall to join the Afghan National Army, which for a decade has struggled to mold itself into an effective fighting force. Both were encouraged to join by their fathers and uncles, Pashtuns from a nearby hilltop village where support for Afghan security forces is strong and hatred of Taliban insurgents runs deep.
PHOTOS: Afghan army recruits
Rahmatullah, 21, and Azizullah, 20, freely admitted that their own motives were more base: Soldiering pays about $155 a month for recruits and about $230 a month after they join a unit, better than anything they can find in their hardscrabble village. The food is plentiful and the beds are warm.
Oh yes, each recruit added, almost as an afterthought, "And I want to serve my country and protect it from its enemies," meaning the Taliban.
The two callow Pashtun villagers and 1,400 fellow recruits in 1st Battalion, 4th Company, 1st Platoon, are the vanguard of a deeply flawed force that must fight the Taliban on its own after U.S. troops withdraw by the end of 2014. Their 18 weeks of training here will be tested in Afghanistan's deserts and mountains, where hardened Taliban insurgents are poised to attack.
Five weeks into training, the cousins were off to a good start. Rahmatullah put 20 of 20 shots into the center of target cutouts 25 yards away. Azizullah hit 18 of 20. Neither man had ever fired a gun before — or so they claimed.
"They are motivated and they learn fast," said the platoon instructor, 1st Sgt. Haga Mohammed. "They'll be ready to fight when they leave here; all our guys will be ready, believe me."
Everyone at the sun-baked Kabul Military Training Center — the recruits, the training cadre, the mustachioed Afghan commanding general, and the soft-spoken Canadian chief advisor — spouts the same line: The Afghan army is unified, with no ethnic divisions. It will be fully capable of fighting off the Taliban when U.S. forces are gone.
That, of course, is what a long parade of Afghan generals and Western advisors has been assuring training center visitors for nearly a decade — even as the army remained poorly led and ill-equipped.
"We like the Americans, and we feel stronger if we're with them," Rahmatullah said in his barracks, amid the sour stench of unwashed bodies. "But we'll be ready 100% to fight on our own in 2014."
Rahmatullah's brother, 1st Sgt. Nazir Ahmad, who has fought the Taliban and is now a trainer at the center, said U.S. Marines taught him discipline under fire. "We have the lead now, but we're a poor country and we still need weapons and equipment from the Americans," he said.
At the front, the Afghan army's shortcomings are obvious, and a source of constant complaint among front-line American troops.
For all the enthusiasm and bravery of individual soldiers, the army has not weaned itself from air support, artillery, fuel, weapons, ammunition, communications and combat medical aid provided by U.S. and coalition forces. Drug use, theft, corruption and desertion are common. Discipline is improving, but remains erratic.
The desertion rate is 10% to 15%, said Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaher Azimi, and no deserters have been punished. "Well, it's a volunteer army," he said.
The army is also undercut by ethnic tension, and by Taliban infiltrators and disaffected soldiers who shoot and kill Western troops and civilian contractors. At the command level, ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and others fight bitterly for influence.
Afghan Brig. Gen. Aminullah Patyani, the academy commander, says any such problems can be addressed through rigorous training. As academy commander, Patyani is bullish on the army.
What about so-called insider attacks, which have caused 130 coalition deaths since 2007, including 61 in 2012? There hasn't been a single such incident at the training center, Patyani said.
Recruits' phony IDs and fake letters of recommendation from village elders? Increased vigilance, with fresh help from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence agency, has the problem under control, Patyani said.
The washout rate? No such thing. Every recruit graduates, the general said, even if they have to keep repeating their courses.
Patyani said the Afghan army was nearing its goal of 195,000 soldiers. Troop strength was expected to reach 187,000 by the end of 2012. But the academy must churn out 50,000 new soldiers a year to help keep pace with desertions, casualties and retirements.