The sound of gunfire and yelling punctures the air as Afghan soldiers run through a recent exercise at the Kabul military training center. Firing blanks from their rifles, they advance on an identified enemy position as their NATO trainers watch. While thousands of young Afghans are being run through their paces, this class may be one of the most important, because it is training the new leaders of the Afghan army.
Building a credible Afghan army is one of NATO's main tasks in Afghanistan and a pillar of its exit strategy. It is a massive undertaking, and the current lack of mid-level leadership experience leaves a big gap in the force. But Afghans will have to learn more how to fight. They need the skills to maintain a functioning and effedtive military - everything from engineering to logistics, a task made more complicated by widespread illiteracy.
British Sergeant Major John Penney is training alongside the young recruits, who says will become the backbone of the future army.
"While this army is going to take over the security from ISAF of Afghanistan, they need to have these young officers in place, trained, confident, in the ability that they can carry out their role and duty on the front line," Sergeant Penny said.
But more than a decade of civil war and Taliban rule mean there is a lack of mid-level officers with experience. To augment this, the army is recruiting former mujahadeen fighters who battled the Soviet-backed army. The head of the training center, Brigadier General Aminullah Patyani, once fought against the mujahadeen, but now he is glad they are here and hopes former Taliban fighters will be as well.
"I welcome our Afghan brothers who have fought against the government, to lay down their weapons he says, and join the Afghan National army, our doors are open," Patyani said.
The NATO training mission has been criticized for shortening basic soldier training courses. Mission leader Lieutenant General William Caldwell dismmised the concerns, saying training continues in the field with Afghan soldiers partnered with NATO forces.
"If we're not there with them we're not continuing their development, which is really important. So we have to be out there with them in the field, operating with them," Calwell said. "We have not done that well in the past."
Caldwell and his Afghan counterparts report progress toward the goal of training 171,000 Afghan soldiers by October. Some mistakes have been made, they admit, but add they have learned important lessons. Afghan analyst Kate Clark is skeptical the NATO team is offering anything new.
"They've been doing this strategy for years... they've always, the ANA [Afghan National Army] has always been heavily mentored, and very strongly embedded foreign mentors and I think one of the concerns is when those mentors are taken away, the ANA is very, very weak indeed," said Clark.
The training contingent makes up about 3 percent of total NATO forces in Afghanistan. When troops begin to leave as scheduled next year, training officials say they will remain. They say they will be training the army for years to come.