KABUL, Afghanistan — Rahmatullah, an illiterate young man with a wispy beard and remnants of teenage acne, may represent the last, best hope for Afghanistan’s national army.
Wearing an old Russian-style helmet and firing an American M-16 automatic rifle, he squinted as his hissing rounds found their target on a firing range at the national training academy. At his elbow was his first cousin Azizullah, a functionally illiterate Pashtun tribesman who crouched to fire his own M-16.
The cousins decided in fall to join the Afghan National Army, which for a decade has struggled to mold itself into an effective fighting force. Both were encouraged to join by their fathers and uncles, Pashtuns from a nearby hilltop village where support for Afghan security forces is strong and hatred of Taliban insurgents runs deep.
Rahmatullah, 21, and Azizullah, 20, freely admitted that their own motives were more base: Soldiering pays about $155 a month for recruits and about $230 a month after they join a unit, better than anything they can find in their hardscrabble village. The food is plentiful and the beds are warm.
Oh yes, each recruit added, almost as an afterthought, “And I want to serve my country and protect it from its enemies,” meaning the Taliban.
The two callow Pashtun villagers and 1,400 fellow recruits in 1st Battalion, 4th Company, 1st Platoon, are the vanguard of a deeply flawed force that must fight the Taliban on its own after U.S. troops withdraw by the end of 2014. Their 18 weeks of training here will be tested in Afghanistan’s deserts and mountains, where hardened Taliban insurgents are poised to attack.
Five weeks into training, the cousins were off to a good start. Rahmatullah put 20 of 20 shots into the center of target cutouts 25 yards away. Azizullah hit 18 of 20. Neither man had ever fired a gun before — or so they claimed.
“They are motivated and they learn fast,” said the platoon instructor, 1st Sgt. Haga Mohammed. “They’ll be ready to fight when they leave here; all our guys will be ready, believe me.”
Everyone at the sun-baked Kabul Military Training Center — the recruits, the training cadre, the mustachioed Afghan commanding general, and the soft-spoken Canadian chief adviser — spouts the same line: The Afghan army is unified, with no ethnic divisions. It will be fully capable of fighting off the Taliban when U.S. forces are gone.
That, of course, is what a long parade of Afghan generals and Western advisers has been assuring training center visitors for nearly a decade — even as the army remained poorly led and ill-equipped.
“We like the Americans, and we feel stronger if we’re with them,” Rahmatullah said in his barracks, amid the sour stench of unwashed bodies. “But we’ll be ready 100 percent to fight on our own in 2014.”
Rahmatullah’s brother, 1st Sgt. Nazir Ahmad, who has fought the Taliban and is now a trainer at the center, said U.S. Marines taught him discipline under fire. “We have the lead now, but we’re a poor country and we still need weapons and equipment from the Americans,” he said.
At the front, the Afghan army’s shortcomings are obvious, and a source of constant complaint among front-line American troops.
For all the enthusiasm and bravery of individual soldiers, the army has not weaned itself from air support, artillery, fuel, weapons, ammunition, communications and combat medical aid provided by U.S. and coalition forces. Drug use, theft, corruption and desertion are common. Discipline is improving, but remains erratic.
The desertion rate is 10 percent to 15 percent, said Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaher Azimi, and no deserters have been punished. “Well, it’s a volunteer army,” he said.
The army is also undercut by ethnic tension, and by Taliban infiltrators and disaffected soldiers who shoot and kill Western troops and civilian contractors. At the command level, ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and others fight bitterly for influence.
Afghan Brig. Gen. Aminullah Patyani, the academy commander, says any such problems can be addressed through rigorous training. As academy commander, Patyani is bullish on the army.
What about so-called insider attacks, which have caused 130 coalition deaths since 2007, including 61 in 2012? There hasn’t been a single such incident at the training center, Patyani said.
Recruits’ phony IDs and fake letters of recommendation from village elders? Increased vigilance, with fresh help from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, has the problem under control, Patyani said.
The washout rate? No such thing. Every recruit graduates, the general said, even if they have to keep repeating their courses.
Patyani said the Afghan army was nearing its goal of 195,000 soldiers. Troop strength was expected to reach 187,000 by the end of 2012. But the academy must churn out 50,000 new soldiers a year to help keep pace with desertions, casualties and retirements.
Col. Peter J. Williams, a wiry Canadian who commands a 320-member, eight-nation adviser team, said advisers directed hands-on training in the academy’s early years. The focus was on delivering large numbers of recruits. Today, he said, advisers stand back and observe, offering quiet advice later.
“They’re getting the quantity they want,” Williams said. “Now’s the time to focus on quality.”
Williams has recommended extending the basic training course from nine weeks to 12. (Recruits take another nine-week “collective training” course after graduation.) A pilot 12-week class was this day in an elaborate ceremony featuring martial music, goose-stepping and fiery speeches.
The graduates carried no rifles. Every visitor to the ceremony, from recruits to senior officers, was searched for explosives or weapons. Armed Afghan, Canadian and private security guards stood watch, all on alert for an insider attack.
The ceremony played out without incident as Rahmatullah and Azizullah returned from the firing range. Rahmatullah was stunned to learn that his father, Azizullah’s uncle, was pacing outside the academy gate.
A Los Angeles Times reporter had phoned the father, Qandi Gul, to request an interview. His wife, Ashad Bibi, was convinced that the call meant her son had been wounded or killed. At her insistence, Gul drove his ancient rickshaw motorcycle down a mountain road to the academy.
Gul waited for hours, seeking permission for his son to speak with him. At last, the young recruit emerged. He buried his head in his father’s arms as the older man showered him with kisses.
“Call your mother right now,” Gul ordered. Rahmatullah grabbed his father’s cellphone and walked to a lonely spot along a barbed-wire fence.
Later, in the mud-walled village of Qalai Mohsen, Gul described how he had practically ordered his son, and his nephew too, to join the army. Gul served six years as an Afghan police officer. Three sons, including Rahmatullah, are in the security forces. So are three nephews.
Most of the men in the village, in fact, are in the army or police. Gul’s compound overlooks the national police training academy. On display inside his home is a photo of his eldest son in uniform.
Over a meal of steaming lamb, rice and spinach spread out on his floor, Gul says the village is rabidly anti-Taliban. They are Pashtuns, like most of the Taliban, but Gul calls the insurgents “devils and thieves.”
When he was a police officer, a pro-Taliban mullah told him he wasn’t a real Muslim because he served the U.S.-backed government.
“I told him, ‘I’m a true Muslim and an Afghan patriot who serves his country, and I’ll send all my sons to serve their country,’ ” Gul said.
“The army, the government, will stand against the Taliban, and against Pakistan, even after the Americans are gone,” Gul said, sucking on a cracked lamb bone.
Beside him was another son, Ruhollah. Thin and dark-eyed, Ruhollah said he tried to join the army in 2011, but was rejected because he wasn’t yet 18. He had just turned 18 and planned to sign up soon.
In Gul’s lap was his youngest son, Haroon, 21/2. The boy gurgled and stuffed a wad of rice into his mouth.
His father took the boy in his arms and nuzzled him with his bearded chin.
“One day,” he said, squeezing Haroon, “another soldier for the army.”
Los Angeles Times special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.