KABUL, Afghanistan — Several hundred Afghan National Army recruits marched 22 miles Tuesday on an undulating path at the foot of the towering Hindu Kush mountains, toting M-16 rifles and carrying 20-pound packs on their backs.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Cousan, a Louisiana native, marched every step of the way with them, but he carried only an iPod. Cousan was more consultant than drill sergeant. He was there to watch, and when necessary to give advice through an interpreter.
The effort to enlarge and train the Afghan army is critical to the Obama administration's plan to defeat the Taliban and al Qaida, pacify much of Afghanistan and begin to withdraw at least some U.S. forces in 2011. Success, however, is far from guaranteed: The Afghan military remains plagued by corruption, ethnic rivalries and illiteracy, and by its almost complete dependence on American logistical and intelligence support.
At the Kabul Military Training Center, about 1,400 recruits enter every two weeks to begin an eight-week training regimen, the equivalent of the U.S. Army's boot camp. The Afghan army ostensibly runs the center, but the U.S. and its NATO partners send several "mentors" to each training exercise.
The 22,000-acre training center was built by the Soviets, taken over by the U.S.-backed mujahedeen who ousted them in 1989 and then by the Taliban who ousted the mujahedeen.
A junkyard with hundreds of destroyed Soviet tanks sits in the middle of the camp, but the new Afghan army is being built and trained to fight Islamist insurgents, not to stop an invasion by a neighboring superpower.
"We have recognized that the military we're building here . . . is different from a Cold War military," said Col. Dennis Brown of the Georgia National Guard's 48th Brigade, who oversees much of the training.
The few Afghan soldiers who learn to fire artillery shoot only at targets they can see, as opposed to those 10 miles away, and the Afghan army has few tanks.
"In this terrain, big heavy vehicles don't do well," said Brown, from Marietta, Ga., a lesson the U.S. is learning for itself as it replaces its heavy Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles with lighter, more agile off-road versions.
Afghan soldiers are schooled in urban combat, in storming the home of a suspected insurgent and in reacting to the improvised explosive devices that are the insurgents' deadliest weapons.
"Like an assembly line," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Nevarez of Fort Carson, Colo., an American mentor at the IED training facility.
About a year ago, the Americans stopped issuing the Afghans Soviet-designed AK-47 automatic rifles in favor of the NATO M-16, a rifle that's more accurate but less tolerant of dirt, dust and water.
The change may seem to be a minor one, but the AK's reputation for functioning best when it's set on full automatic and spraying bullets isn't well suited to a counterinsurgency campaign that's trying to teach fire discipline and minimize civilian casualties.
One thing the Afghan trainees don't learn, however, is how to read. About 20 percent of the recruits are literate, but nobody seems concerned about that.
"Most of the training is practical, since most of our soldiers are illiterate," said Afghan Maj. Mohammed Shapoon Sharipyar.
President Barack Obama's new Afghanistan strategy includes an accelerated effort to expand the Afghan army to 134,000 by October of next year, but his timetable leaves little time for new Afghan soldiers to learn more than essential skills.
The Kabul Military Training Center, one of four similar training facilities in Afghanistan, has cut its regimen to eight weeks from 10, and pay for recruits has nearly doubled, from about $120 to $210 a month.
"Since the pay raise has been implemented, the challenge has been finding enough space for them," said Brown.
Recruiting in Afghanistan's harsh winter months is typically stronger than it is in the warmer months. In the spring, when construction companies resume hiring, recruiting ebbs.
Brown is anticipating a similar drop around April. "The strategy is to over-recruit during the good months," he said.
Some observers, however, wonder whether the quality of Afghan army recruits matters more than the number of Afghan army recruits.
When asked why they enlisted, three Afghan recruits, standing at attention, insisted that they joined because they wanted to protect their country, not their tribes or their villages.
"When I watched the army on TV, I was motivated to join," said Abdul Samad, a recruit who was in his first week of training.
Still, American commanders remain skeptical.
There are far more Tajiks in the Afghan army than there are Pashtuns, even though Pashtuns are the largest and most important ethnic group in the country, particularly in the eastern and southern provinces where the insurgency is strongest.
Brown conceded that many soldiers identify with their families first, and their ethnicity, tribe or village second.
"And third would probably be the army and the central government," he said. "It's going to take time."
Like cuisine, few militaries are 100 percent original.
The American military, in many ways, was constructed from the British model, and the Afghan army maintains some of the flavor of its former Soviet occupiers. The Afghans' marching style, with its high leg kicks, was clearly learned from the Red Army, and so, for better or worse, was its management style.
Afghan noncommissioned officers and low-level officers are given no freedom to act without precise instructions from their commanders.
"You respond to your orders, you make no decisions, you just do what you are told," Brown said of the Afghan army underlings.
That's a "culture" that the U.S. mentors are trying to break, Brown said, but that's not an overnight process, and the mentoring continues after the recruits graduate from the training center.
Embedded Training Units — teams of about six U.S. soldiers who live with small Afghan units — are scattered all over Afghanistan. Brown estimated that there are about 100 in the capital city of Kabul alone.
(Day reports for The Telegraph of Macon, Ga.)
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