Army on A Shoe string
Afghanistan needs an army to stand up to its warlords. Can the U.S. build one fast enough and on the cheap?
Private Mo'allem, 26, is having difficulty with the push-ups, but he is proud nevertheless. "Two weeks ago, I could hardly do five," the Pashtun says with a grin. "Now I'm up to 25." But he had better not bad-mouth privates from other Afghan ethnic groups as they all train together under U.S. Green Berets commissioned to create the new Afghan national army. The penalty for ethnic slurs is 50 push-ups. But it's still possible to get away with a sniping remark now and then. The Americans need a troop of translators to tell what insults are being lobbed in the various tribal languages.
Turning old rivals into fellow soldiers is just one task facing the army's American trainers. With 700,000 Afghan civilians--out of a population of 27 million--believed to be armed, new recruits have plenty of experience at target practice. Getting guns for practice, however, is another matter. "Believe it or not, we have difficulty getting weapons here," says Lieut. Colonel Kevin McDonnel, commander of the American special-forces battalion tasked with training the nucleus of the army. The privates often have to settle for weapons simulation. During practice, they yell "Bang!" instead of firing blanks. As Time has reported, U.S. troops have raided Afghan villages hoarding Taliban weapons to get guns for training the new army. Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense has offered some help but not nearly enough. Minister of Defense Mohammed Qasim Fahim, of all people, is not keen on this national army project. One of the country's many warlords, he already commands his own militia of 18,000 men and is not that interested in creating a rival force.
The living legacy of the warlords is the main challenge to the survival of President Hamid Karzai's government. He is surrounded by private armies loyal to regional warlords, and does not have an army of his own. The foreign peacekeepers who patrol the streets of Kabul and the U.S. troops who make up the presidential guard keep Karzai in power, but he has little control over those who challenge his authority outside the capital. Thus if the U.S. hopes to establish a stable regime in Afghanistan, it has to help create an army for Karzai.
In a ceremony in late July, Karzai witnessed the graduation of the first 300 recruits from a basic-training course conducted by Green Berets. His Deputy Defense Minister, General Atiqullah Barialai, has just submitted a proposal to disarm the warlords' troops and either make them soldiers or find them other work. (Barialai also wants a bigger army than the 60,000 envisioned by the Americans; his immediate boss, Fahim, wants any force to include his troops.) The U.S. trainers, at least, are highly motivated to succeed, knowing their homecoming depends on it. Says McDonnel: "If you ask me to compare this to places where we've done this before, I'd say there's a lot more at stake here because this must succeed. This mission is a must-win thing." Another key but difficult goal is creating an army that ordinary Afghans--from village to city--will see as protectors and not another bunch of thieving, warlord-led marauders.
Raising the new force is proving as tricky as arming it. More than 500 men signed up for the first battalion. Most were flown to Kabul from provincial recruitment centers; others arrived on horseback or on foot. One 14-year-old boy, an orphan, tried to sign up; the Americans turned him away. But by graduation, more than one-third of the trainees had dropped out. Many had arrived with the idea that they would be training in the U.S. or Turkey, then quit when they realized that they were destined only for the battle-scarred Afghan Military Academy outside Kabul and that they would make just $30 a month during training and $50 afterward. "If I'd known it was going to be like this, I probably wouldn't have come," grumbles Private Shamsuddin, a square-jawed 22-year-old from Faryab who was expecting pay of $250 a month. He is debating returning home to his job as a tractor driver. The Americans are also watching their recruits to see if any are potential sergeants. The pickings are slim; about 70% of the trainees are illiterate.
The U.S. hopes to have 3,000 soldiers trained by December and 13,000 by the end of 2003. That means the instructors have to work fast. "I'd rather have six months to one year" to train each battalion, says a U.S. instructor. "Ten weeks is what I've got to deal with. It's not a hopeless objective, but it's a difficult one." And even that might not be fast enough. Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged that the pace of training may be too slow: "We are thinking about ways that it can be done faster." With the warlords not growing any weaker, time has become another enemy.
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