KABUL, Afghanistan -- With a full-throated roar, 2,000 proud new Afghan soldiers swung across a parade ground in an enthusiastic if imprecise goose-step formation. The latest graduates of the Afghan army's basic training course, they will soon head off to fight the Taliban, as their commanding general announced, "in the name of Almighty Allah.''
These new troops, smartly outfitted with American combat boots, uniforms and M-16 rifles, are the result of a determined push by the U.S. and allied command to "surge'' more Afghans into in a stalemated war in which American and European troops are doing most of the fighting.
By Aug. 1, the Afghan army will have grown to 134,000. That milestone is being reached two months early, thanks to an Afghan army pay raise that attracted new recruits and the injection into the basic training course of hundreds of battle-hardened American infantrymen as trainers and mentors. Training for Afghans has become tougher, stricter, more condensed. Fresh, well-equipped troops are charging out into the fight at a rate of a new 800-man battalion every 15 days.
"I am very proud,'' said Brig. Gen. Aminullah Pateani, commander of the Kabul Military Training Center, a 22,000-acre tract in the desert and barren mountains above Kabul. Pateani, one of the army's brightest young officers, added that the quantity and quality of his new troops "have come a long way.''
Until recently, basic training for Afghans has been substandard. Last January, only 1 in 3 soldiers finishing basic training could hit targets with a rifle. There was no standardized instruction, no graduation exercise to test their skills. Then the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry (2-22, or "Triple Deuce") was sent in. Its soldiers, veteran combat troops from the 10th Mountain Division, poured into the training fields here, working with Afghans to set up a new curriculum, setting new standards and engaging in hands-on training of Afghan army trainers and instructors.
Today, 96 percent of basic trainees are hitting their rifle-range targets. Physical fitness standards have been set, and the curriculum beefed up with coursework on counterinsurgency, combat first aid, checkpoint operations, communications and basic combat maneuvers. Now the U.S. infantrymen have stepped back from a direct role in the training, which is all done by Afghan officers and senior enlisted soldiers, overseen and mentored by the Americans.
"I know we are making effective progress -- I see it every day,'' said Lt. Col. Michael Loos, who commands the Triple Deuce battalion.
All this is good news for the Afghan and allied commands, and for the Obama White House, which has promised to begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops next July. Fielding well-trained Afghan troops, who can gradually take over security operations from U.S. and allied forces, is the administration's "exit strategy.'' Eleven months remain to get it done.
So far the Afghan army's surge of new troops looks promising. But the sparkling parade-ground performance can be deceiving. The new Afghan army faces huge problems, according to senior U.S. and NATO officers and soldiers involved in the training, and it's not clear these can be resolved in time.
What's been achieved so far, Loos observed, "is good only if it lasts.''
For starters, only 14 percent of the Afghan army is literate -- meaning they can read at a third-grade level. That means the vast majority cannot use a map, read road signs or simple instructions or follow a training manual -- sharply restricting their ability to advance beyond basic soldier skills. (Many new recruits show up for basic training having never seen a light switch or a faucet.)
Accurate shooting remains a problem. About half the Afghans need glasses because of chronic malnutrition. But few wear them because glasses are expensive and difficult to get -- and because wearing glasses is considered a sign of weakness. To try to overcome this problem on the rifle range, U.S. instructors moved the targets in from 300 meters to 250 meters. Did that help? I asked Maj. Rich Garey, executive officer of 2-22. He paused and considered his answer. "Let's just say there are challenges yet to be overcome,'' he said.
Petty corruption and lethargy seem to infuse the ranks, U.S. and allied soldiers say. Last week, the Afghan trainers were issued 5,000 gallons of fuel; two days later, 2,000 gallons were missing, said a French officer, Capt. Mattieu Juttet. Soldiers in the new Afghan battalions are issued everything from shower sandals and socks to armored Humvees. "Half the stuff we give them they sell, and we have to resupply them -- so we're paying for it twice,'' muttered a U.S. soldier involved in supply.
The American trainers have worked hard to cram what used to be 14 weeks of basic training into eight -- it was shortened to increase the production of new soldiers. Even so, Afghan instructors knock off work in the early afternoon. "They'd all leave at noon if we'd let them,'' said one frustrated infantryman. "In our Army we train until the task is done; here, they train until 1500 (3 p.m.), and leave no matter what.''
One day recently, Sgt. Adam Taddeo, a 25-year-old from Miami, was sitting disconsolately on an ammunition box as a dust storm approached across the desert floor. He had planned a full, hard day of field training, but the battalion of recruits he advises sat idle, heads bent against the wind. Once again, his Afghan instructors had not shown up. "At first I thought the problem was me,'' he said. "But it turns out this is just the way it is here.''
Many of these problems could be overcome with a strong cadre of sergeants in the ranks. But the Afghan army is short 12,000 non-commissioned officers, according to Brig. Gen. Gary S. Patton, deputy commander of the NATO training mission here. Patton told me he expected that accelerated training of NCOs wouldl fill that gap by December 2011.
That's if the Afghan army can keep attrition under control. Last fall it was losing a third of its troops every year, because of retirements, battle casualties and desertions. Now the attrition rate is just under 20 percent a year against a goal of 14 percent, Patton said.
A deeper issue is loyalty. Perhaps most recruits believe the oath they swear to the Afghan government. But U.S. and allied officers acknowledge that insurgents probably lurk in the ranks.
In the most recent of several similar incidents, on July 13, an Afghan soldier opened fire on British troops near Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, killing three and wounding four. The gunman, who had used a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, got away and was taken in by the Taliban, according to a Taliban statement.
The incident was troubling enough for U.S. and allied troops fighting in joint operations that Gen. David Petraeus, the new war commander, issued a statement reminding troops to "ensure that the trust between our forces remains solid in order to defeat our common enemies."
Afghan recruits are screened, with a background check to see if their names show up on a database of insurgents and criminals, and they must bring two letters of recommendation from their home village. But the database is spotty, the letters can be forged, and American officers concede the screening is "not rigorous.''
Further out in the unknown future is the issue of cost. By 2011 the United States will have spent roughly $20 billion building the Afghan army. NATO estimates it will take $1.8 billion a year to sustain the Afghan army at its current size, a cost beyond Afghanistan's modest finances. And plans are for the army to expand to 171,000.
Despite these incipient problems, U.S. soldiers working here retain a high degree of optimism and satisfaction. Many of them have served at least one combat tour in Afghanistan; Lt. Col. Loos, the battalion commander, is on his fourth tour.
"I am really passionate about this, that we are making a difference,'' he told me one evening in the cooling dusk. "This may be the most important thing I've done in the Army.''
His executive officer, Maj. Garey, said: "You can go out and kill or detain a bad guy here, but his brother and his family immediately pop up to take his place, so you have only a short-term gain.'' The new focus on training Afghan soldiers, he said, "really feels like it will have a lasting effect.''
Building a competent and capable Afghan army, he said, "could be our ticket out of here.''