Saturday, December 5, 2009
Robert Fox, Defence Correspondent - The Evening Standard (click the headline for the ES website)
On a lunar landscape of hardened mud and rock littered with the hulks of Russian tanks, the new Afghan army is being shaped, and with it the future of the Afghan state and its deadly war with the Taliban insurgency.
Across these ranges, barrack huts and drill squares, some 12,000 young Afghan soldiers and their mentors train every month. The rawest recruits undergo "warrior" training for eight weeks before being sent to their units; young officers train for 25 weeks.
"It's a bit of roller-coaster, trying to meet the deadline of 134,000 trained soldiers by next October," said Brigadier Simon Levey, the British officer in charge of international assistance and mentoring to the Afghan forces. "Sometimes it feels like laying down the rail track just in front of the train."
Lieutenant Colonel Nik Ilic, the British officer in charge of NCO mentoring and training, said: "The difference is that we started training with British officers and Gurkhas in English. Now the Afghan officers and NCOs train them in Dari and we are there to mentor." Decorated for gallantry on the front line as an interpreter in the Bosnian war, Ilic says his present job is about the best he has had in his Army career.
"It's a fantastic job, a real privilege, and I would like to stay longer than my six-month tour. The real test is how many well-trained NCOs and soldiers we can get into the field. My team of 63 does wonders - but just imagine what we could achieve if we had 500 mentors here," he said.
Within three years the Afghan government aims to train an army of more than 300,000. It will be a tall order given the major problems of illiteracy - only 30 per cent of those selected for NCO training can read and write, and most training has to be done by demonstration and purely visual story boards.
Across the barren landscape of the training ground, the soldiers crawl like ants. G Company of the Officer Training Course is preparing for a full exercise using live ammunition, which will take up the final week of training. Many will be in battle alongside the British and Americans in Helmand only a few weeks from now. A key element of the McChrystal strategy for Afghanistan, endorsed by President Obama with extra funds and US troop reinforcements this week, is the concept of "embedded partnering". British and American units will feed, sleep, train and fight alongside companies of Afghan army soldiers.
Early next year the international mission in Afghanistan is likely to be in its decisive offensive. It will be a decisive blooding, too, for many of the young recruits and trainee officers and NCOs at Gharib Gahr. "The training here is very good, and getting better. I just wish we could train on heavier weapons like mortars and SPG-9 recoilless guns," said Colonel Abdul Sabor, who fought against Russian occupation.
The future officers of G Company say they are prepared for the fight ahead. Taj Mohammed, 22, the platoon commander, said: "I want to help my country through the army." His comrade in arms Enyatullah added: "My father was in the army for 35 years. He is very proud that I am here, and so am I." Pashin Arbela, 22, who is married with two children, said: "I joined to make my country a better place for my family."
The army has had problems with absenteeism and corruption. "This has now improved, and the numbers going Awol and failing courses have fallen dramatically," said Colonel Ilic. "It's gone from 40 per cent to about five - which is better than infantry training at Catterick, which has had a failure and drop-out rate as high as 40per cent."