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Fledging Afghan army grapples with high expectations
Fri Oct 2, 2009 8:38am EDT
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By Maria Golovnina
KABUL (Reuters) - Gun shots ring sharply across a valley littered with rusting hulks of Soviet tanks as Afghan soldiers crouch down and open fire into the dusty haze.
No one fires back and enemy positions are empty.
Here at the Kabul Military Training Center, the exercise is part of U.S. efforts to put the Afghan army on its own feet in hopes that, one day, Western troops could leave Afghanistan.
Once a Soviet military base, the facility is now at the heart of plans by General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. and NATO military chief in Afghanistan, to create a strong enough Afghan fighting force capable of defending its country from the Taliban.
Progress is painfully slow. Plagued by illiteracy, corruption and desertion, the army is not yet far from what it was just a few years ago: a motley crew of militia fighters.
"This army is a microcosm of the greater population. A lot of the things that are holding back the army also exist on the civilian side," said Colonel Dennis Brown, the training centre's acting chief of staff.
"We have to work and take small steps ... so we can leave once we get the military to defend their country. So we can leave. And our mission will be done."
The plan is to expand the army from 90,000 to 134,000 soldiers by late 2011 -- and create an effective force that could take over security in Afghanistan, much as is happening in Iraq.
A rise in civilian deaths, particularly in air strikes by NATO forces, has fueled Afghan anger and contributed to calls for a greater role of the Afghan army in anti-Taliban operations.
Recruits come from all over Afghanistan and anyone in good health in welcome. In a country at war, many arrive already hardened by battle but lack professional training and discipline.
"A lot of these guys have a lot of experience," said Staff Sergeant David Adams, a U.S. mentor from Arizona as he pointed at a group of soldiers receiving instructions in the blistering heat on how to storm and secure buildings.
"If you talk to these guys about how to execute an ambush, they've done it many more times than I have," he added, smiling. "Now we need to turn it into a winning force."
The sprawling training center is like a city in itself, complete with pot-holed roads, shooting ranges, ruins of Soviet facilities and biscuit-colored hills flanking it from all sides.
Supervised by NATO trainers, hundreds of Afghans go through rounds of exercise every day. Perched on the outskirts of Kabul, the center churns out 25,000 trained soldiers a year. Continued...
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