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First Battalion of Afghanistan Army to be Deployed - 2002-07-22

The first battalion of Afghanistan's new national army is about to be deployed, after receiving U.S. Army basic training. The freshly-minted Afghan soldiers have marched on a hot and dusty parade ground, to the tune of the new army's anthem. They are at the end of their 10-week training course.

U.S. Army special forces trainers have drilled the men on small arms and mortar fire, military discipline and other basic skills.

The first battalion of the Afghanistan National Army is made up of about 300 men. More than 500 showed up during the initial recruiting drive, but nearly half of them dropped out.

U.S. Army spokesman Sergeant Don Dees blames the high attrition rate on some serious misunderstandings.

"Some of the recruits were outright swindled to get here. They were under the impression they would be making several times more a month than they actually are," he said. "They found out they are being paid $30 a month during their basic training. It's going to go up to $50 upon graduation. There were some other misunderstandings. They thought they would be taken to the U.S. for training, that they'd be taught to speak English, that they'd be taught to read and write. And these are not part of the program, yet."

One of the soldiers of the new battalion is 20-year-old Obiedullah from the northern city, Mazar-e-Sharif. He is a veteran of the militias who fought against the Taleban.

Obeidullah is very critical of those recruits who dropped out, as he explained through an interpreter.

"Those people who didn't make it, or who didn't have the patience to stay here, were the ones who were not thinking seriously about the importance of the national army," he said. "And, so this is why they didn't do a good job and they left. And if they had a brain in their heads then they would have stayed here together with Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pastuns and the Hazaras and they would have made a national army and they would have brought peace to this country."

The American trainers say they were surprised that ethnic divisions were not a bigger problem, given the lingering rivalries that fueled the long civil war in Afghanistan.

Trainers say the biggest obstacle was linguistic, with their instructions in English having to be translated into two or more of Afghanistan's languages.

In addition to training the troops, the Americans are training Afghan instructors who will eventually assume duties from the U.S. special forces. The French Army also is participating and instructing the second Afghan battalion. A number of countries are providing equipment, including 1,000 AK-47 rifles from Romania.

The commander of the American trainers is Lieutenant Colonel Kevin McDonnell who says last year's attacks against the United States by terrorists based in Afghanistan make this mission special.

"This isn't just the United States in another country, trying to help them out with their security problems," he said. "The United States was attacked on U.S. soil. Okay. And, this is our war. And, we're here to help the Afghans ensure that the people that attacked us and people of similar organizations with similar intent do not come back and terrorize the civilians in Afghanistan."

Colonel McDonnell says the new army also is being trained to be loyal to the new political system in Afghanistan, under elected civilian leadership. He sees that as the best way to overcome the suspicion of warlords, who remain skeptical about the new army's purpose.