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Afghanistan Creates an Army, Recruit by Recruit - 2003-02-11

Efforts are intensifying to create a new Afghanistan army. Recruitment drives have been stepped up and military trainers hope to have a viable army in place by next year. Afghanistan's new army is being built one recruit at a time.

The 600 men of Afghanistan's new Sixth Battalion have been training 10 weeks for this day, as they march out smartly in front of their commanders and visiting military officials and diplomats. It is the day they pass from being mere recruits to soldiers of Afghanistan's new national army.

They will join about 2,000 other soldiers, who over the past year have been trained to form a force capable of taking on the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida.

U.S. Lieutenant General Dan McNeil, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, says Afghan army troops are already in the field and so far, the reports have been good.

"The Afghan soldiers that have been trained to date here at the Kabul military training center have been used in operational deployments in Afghanistan and have in fact done very well," said General McNeil. "In Paktika province we had some good events out there and there is presently a force up in Bamiyan with the same results. But if your question is, are they completely trained, the answer is no. The training is a continuing process, their operational deployments will take them to yet another level, and after we have trained sufficient numbers to form three brigades, some of them will go back and train at a higher level in some specific equipment and tactics."

General McNeil acknowledges getting Afghanistan's new army off to a fighting start has not been easy. The new force has been hurt by a high desertion rate blamed on low pay. Another problem has been the unwillingness of regional Afghan warlords to give up their best troops to the new army.

Creating an ethnically balanced force has been another challenge but General McNeil says as Afghanistan's new army takes shape it will closely resemble the society it comes from.

"We think we are fairly close. We think the most recent recruiting has produced better results in terms of demographics than any recruiting," asserted General McNeil. "The Afghans are doing it themselves so all the signs are encouraging."

Morale seems high among the soldiers. Mohammed Rizak, a new infantryman from Maidan province, said the men in his unit learned to overcome their traditional ethnic rivalries and work together. "We had different groups. There were Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and they were all working together and all be working for their country," he said.

Mohammed Rizak says he has been well trained by French and American officers and is now ready to fight those he calls Afghanistan's enemies.

While they say they were well trained, many recruits complain about their low pay - $30 a month during training, $50 a month after graduation and $70 for those with specialized training.

Afghani President Hamid Karzai says the new army is a top priority and he wants to see a force of about 70,000 troops by the end of the decade.

Foreign military observers say getting to that goal will depend on whether the powerful regional warlords will turn over large numbers of the troops they control to the new army.

So far the warlords have sent only a token number of troops to join the army, raising fears that Afghanistan's new highly trained force might not have enough troops to meet the threat posed by terrorism and instability.