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As Violence Flares, Afghan National Army Struggles to Come Into Its Own

As violence flares across Afghanistan, U.S. military officials say the new Afghan National Army will have to shoulder greater responsibility for defeating the Taleban insurgency. VOA's Benjamin Sand recently joined U.S. and Afghan troops in southeastern Afghanistan, patrolling the border area with Pakistan that is thought to harbor many of the militants. He sent this report on the growth of Afghanistan's national forces, and the challenges facing them.

U.S. and Afghan soldiers in Paktika province head out to patrol the remote countryside along the Pakistan border. This area is a hotbed of Taleban insurgent activity. Military officials say militants based inside Pakistan stream across the border at night to attack local targets, and then slip back before daybreak.

They also say ethnic Pashtuns, who live along the frontier, were loyal to Afghanistan's former Taleban government, and are involved in insurgent violence.

American armored trucks take the lead, directing the convoy across the dusty fields toward a nearby village.

The Afghan soldiers driving smaller, unprotected pickup trucks fall in line behind the American Humvees. But once the convoy reaches the town, the Afghan National Army takes over.

A.N.A. soldiers secure the high ground overlooking the town and conduct house-to-house searches, looking for any sign of insurgent activity.

American Captain Jason Griffith says that without the Afghan soldiers, operations like this would be nearly impossible.

"Afghan citizens will be more likely to tell an Afghan soldier about something that's going on in their neighborhood than approaching a foreigner,"Griffith says. "They understand the culture, they understand the problems."

In fact, the U.S. military says reinforcing the A.N.A. is the only way it will be able to secure Afghanistan's long-term stability.

Coalition forces have committed millions of dollars to the A.N.A.'s development. The French military is helping train the new Afghan officer corps, while British troops work with the rank and file.

Almost all the U.S. bases now also include barracks for Afghan troops, and the two armies work side by side on most operations.

In Paktika, American Sergeant Bernard Deghand says that for now at least, the Americans continue to take the lead. But he thinks that pretty soon, A.N.A. soldiers will be ready to direct operations by themselves.

"They really know what they're doing," Deghand says. "They know how to fight, they know how to survive. Some of these guys are just amazing at what they know and what they can do."

It is an old story, and not always a happy one: encouraging an army to fight a homegrown insurgency; foreign advisors describing local recruits in glowing terms. The U.S. military has previous experience in this area and not always successful. Their effort in South Vietnam to build an army to fight the communist insurgency of the 1960's and '70's failed - as history shows. So even though there are signs it might work this time in Afghanistan, success here is not a foregone conclusion.

The A.N.A. was launched in 2003 and already has some 30,000 troops. Ultimately it hopes to have more than 70,000, including combat infantry and Special Forces.

Sergeant Deghand says the army has already attracted widespread notice for its diversity.

Culturally, Afghanistan is a notoriously fractured society, with dozens of competing tribes and ethnic groups. But from its inception, the A.N.A. has been fully integrated and has largely avoided internal conflicts.

In Paktika, Afghan Commander Roidar Hussain directs hundreds of soldiers in one of the most dangerous parts of the country. He says his company includes troops from almost every one of Afghanistan 34 provinces.

He says the bottom line is, the A.N.A. represents the entire country. By working together, he says, his troops are able to show even these remote communities that everyone has stake in Afghanistan's future.

But even its most ardent supporters, including U.S. Sergeant Deghand, admit that the national army itself faces an uncertain future.

"It's something they've never had before, so there's a lot of growing pains," Deghand says.

Desertion is at the top of that list. Even as the A.N.A. works to expand its numbers, it is having trouble holding on to those soldiers it already has.

In several camps, more than half the troops have deserted, and thousands more are reportedly set to leave once they complete their three-year contracts later this year.

Officials say the major issue is poor pay. A.N.A. soldiers earn about $90 a month, significantly less than they could make as civilians.

The chance for an education may offset the drawbacks. In Paktika, where an estimated 80 percent of the soldiers are illiterate, a local company commander teaches basic literacy classes. In another camp, soldiers study to become plumbers or electricians.

Captain Griffith says the Americans are encouraging senior A.N.A. officers to provide better training to improve the retention rate.

"In most areas, the advantage for a soldier to stay in is a greater education so when they walk off after their service in the army they can be more than just a laborer," Griffith says.

Everywhere, officers say morale is improving and recruitment is on the rise. For every soldier that quits the army, they insist they are attracting two new replacements.

But officials admit it might be years before the A.N.A. will be entirely self-sufficient, and time is not unlimited. The Taleban recently launched a so-called summer offensive, and attacks are increasing throughout the country.

In Paktika, local residents say they still believe the A.N.A. can help provide security. But Afghans are notoriously fickle in their loyalties. If the violence continues, they say they might reconsider their support of the central government. They might, they say, join the Taleban.