Afghan army – ready or not, you’re in charge

NATO began handing control over one of the country's 34 provinces to local forces. But there is concern the new guard are too divided, untrained and ill-equipped to fend off the insurgency by themselves.

The confusion is visible on the faces of the Afghan Army soldiers as a firefight unfolds on the other side of the wall. Lucky for them, they are in the Kabul Military Training Center, and the bullets being fired are blanks.

Recruits at the center are halfway through a ten-week program, and the officers do not cut them any slack: When it is over, they will be deployed to Kunar province, one of Afghanistan’s most violent areas.

“We must push them hard so they can perform under pressure. Day by day, we are making progress,” says instructor Sergeant Niyazi.

The Afghan National Army has already come a long way. Its ranks have swollen to about 170,000 thanks to a wave of recruits attracted by higher wages and extra perks.

Zubair, a 22-year-old-recruit, insists he and his fellow soldiers are united in their desire to beat back the Taliban-led insurgency regardless of age or ethnicity: “We are all brothers and we are all called by one name.”

The call of duty has struck a chord beyond able-bodied males as well. A first-ever class of women soldiers has just graduated. And there is even a Mujahideen unit made up of hardened veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad.

This is all good news to US military planners, who set a 2014 deadline to handover security responsibilities to the Afghans.

The Afghan Army enjoys a much better reputation than the police force, and has even been featured in a recent movie. But as the army takes greater responsibility for security around the country, there are concerns that the quantity of troops may be coming at the expense of quality.

For starters, more than 80 per cent of troops are illiterate, a big problem in a job where the ability to read maps and numbers can be a matter of life and death.

Adding to the woes are widespread drug use and desertions. Today, roughly one-in-four combat soldiers quit their posts.

Critics also point out that the military leadership is made up of many rival ex-warlords who still command loyalties along regional and ethnic lines.

As the US begins to scale back its role as custodian this summer, there are fears that these divisions will flare up.

“We will again be like we were in the 1990s, we will be fighting each other, we will be killing each other,”
believes military analyst Rahimullah Samandar.

Yet another obstacle for an army that still has much to prove before it can stand on its own feet.