British troops train Afghan Army.
Armed by the Romanians, trained by the British, wearing American uniforms and led by a former guerrilla, the platoon of Afghan fighters scrambling up the sun-blasted defile were an unlikely bunch of soldiers by any measure. What they lacked in finesse, however, they made up in fighting spirit. Such was the violence of their assault that there was little opportunity for taking prisoners and little indication of an expected 40 per cent casualty rate among their own ranks. Perhaps it was fortunate, then, that the bullets were blank and that the assault was merely part of a junior commanders' training exercise for Afghanistan's fledgeling national army, the ANA.
Part of the American-led coalition's efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, the present training venture is the fourth occasion since 1870 that the country has tried to form a national army to replace its traditional tribal structures. Each previous attempt melted away beneath internal revolt or invasion.
This time, though, there is a new element to the approach. British non-commissioned officers from The 2nd Battalion of The Royal Anglians, the "Poachers", are training Afghan troops in counterpart roles, a novelty for the Afghan forces that have previously known no professional NCO element within their hierachy.
"It is the first time here that a corps of NCOs are being formed," Major Nick Wilcox, commanding the British training team, said.
"Before, there was not a defined role for non-commissioned officers, nor a merit-based system of junior rank. Everything was very nepotistic. Now we are creating a very efficient class of junior commanders. They are very keen, tough, and we keep telling them that we don't care which tribe they are from or what their ethnic identity is."
An American company, Military Professional Resources Incorporated, is organising the ANA. French soldiers train the officers, the American military trains the recruits and British troops are responsible for running junior NCO courses and training the Afghans to instruct their comrades, so that the ANA will be able to sustain itself in the future.
Renowned in the 19th century for their marksmanship, today's Afghan soldiers have a more varied mix of skills, thanks to the modern "Kalashnikov culture".
"We get some who couldn't hit a barn door if they were standing beside it, and some who are the most incredible, instinctive snap-shots I have seen," Major Wilcox said.
Shamsullah Shakeri, the 32-year-old Panjshiri captain and former guerrilla who commanded the morning's training assaults, falls into the latter category. For nine years he was a Mujahidin fighter loyal to Ahmed Shah Masood, the famed Panjshiri guerrilla who was assassinated in a suicide bomb attack in September 2001. Shakeri has fought the Russians, Afghan communist forces, rival factions and the Taleban.
With an intended strength of 70,000 by 2010, the ANA hopes to have 12,000 men under arms by next year. Soldiers are paid $50 (£32) a month, NCOs $110. In a country of extreme poverty, in which more than 70,000 men are armed as part of existing militias, recruiting should not, in theory, be a problem. Yet it is.
Politically the ANA is in deep water. The Afghan Ministry of Defence, something of a military autocracy run by General Fahim Khan, has to date been resistant to reforms aimed at destroying its Panjshiri dominance. Many non-Panjshiris are reluctant to join the ANA for fear of discrimination, or else they see it as a partisan organisation.
"The national army as it stands is still not ethnically balanced," Sardar Sayyidi, head of a leading ethnic Hazara party in Mazar-i-Sharif, said. "I have sent my men down many times to Kabul to join the ANA, but most left as they were not well-treated by the Ministry of Defence, who regard Hazaras badly."
Although the British training teams insist on quashing tribal discrimination and on selecting NCOs themselves regardless of ethnic identity, the Afghan Ministry of Defence claims that it alone selects ANA officers for the French-run courses.
"It doesn't matter to us who is training our men," Lieutenant-General Lutfallah, head of the ministry's officer personnel directorate, said. "But the choice of officer is ours. We select them and introduce them to the French instructors."
Credible American and British sources claim that General Fahim has embarked upon his own weapons-buying programme, stocking up both heavy and light weaponry purchased from Russian arms dealers at secret locations in the country. Before a planned national disarmament campaign of Afghan militias, the unilaterally controlled stocks are devolved from any ANA control.
Rather than issue ANA units with its own abundant weaponry, the ministry is happy to have had the coalition equip it. Romanians, Czechs and Bulgarians have donated Kalashnikovs and light weapons for the ANA infantry, as well as spare parts for the armoured vehicles.
One insider said: "You can guarantee that the Ministry of Defence doesn't give its working tanks to the ANA."
To date only one ANA corps is in existence. Inaugurated last week, comprising 5,000 men, the Kabul-based central corps has three brigades, each three battalions strong.
It is clear that British NCOs will leave an indelible impression on their charges.
"When the Americans trained us as soldiers it was quite easy," Obeidullah Rahimi, 23, a section commander, said. "Then the British trained us as NCOs and it was very hard. They were tough with us and always told us what we were doing wrong.
"When we heard that we were going back to the British for another course, many of us said: 'Oh no, not them again. They shout all the time. We'll never forget it."
A week of deaths in Afghanistan:
- Monday, August 25: Operation Warrior Sweep launched by US and Afghan forces against opposition militia. Between 14 and 50 militants believed dead
- Tuesday 26: Five suspected militants killed near Zabul
- Wednesday 27: Twelve Taleban fighters killed in battle for Moray Pass
- Thursday 28: US and Afghan troops in Shkin attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Fighting kills more Taleban
- Friday 29: A further 40 Taleban are estimated killed near Zabul, bringing the total to more than 70. Three Afghan soldiers killed and two US wounded
- Saturday 30: US and Afghan troops launch air attacks, killing 12 Taleban
- Sunday 31: Two US soldiers killed and one wounded in fierce fighting at Shkin. Four militants killed in battle. Fourteen more rebels reported dead near Zabul
- Monday, September 1: Seven Afghan soldiers killed south of Kabul. US confirms deaths of 37 Taleban in the week, although unofficial reports put the figure nearer to 90. 35 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan.
[Source: The Times, London, UK, September 3, 2003]
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