RELATED STORY:Afghan police slow to earn trust of Americans

BAGHLAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Tomorrow, Afghanistan’s homegrown soldiers might be ready to take over the fight against the Taliban, so that American forces can begin to come home as President Barack Obama hopes.

But today, they are far from ready. Even the best Afghan units lack training, discipline and adequate reinforcements. In one new unit in Baghlan Province, soldiers have been found cowering ditches rather than fight. Others routinely steal U.S.-supplied fuel, equipment and weapons. And a few are suspected of collaborating with the Taliban against the Americans.

“I do not feel I am a mentor here,” said Capt. Jason Douthwaite, a logistics officer with the 73rd Troop Command of the Ohio National Guard who has tried to stop rampant pilfering by the Afghan soldiers his unit is training. “I feel like I am an investigating officer. It’s not, ‘Let me teach you your job.’ It’s more like, ‘How much did you steal from the American government today?’ ”

In his speech at West Point last week announcing a surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan, Obama said building and training the Afghan security forces would become a pillar of America’s new war strategy so that U.S. forces could begin to be withdrawn in July 2011.

Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said the goal is to double Afghan forces to 400,000, and to do so in four years.

But given the unbridled corruption that infests the ranks of the Afghan National Army and national police, as well as a the severe shortage of quality recruits and a gaping void in the Afghan leadership and command structure, many outside experts — and some U.S. trainers on the ground — doubt that the Afghan forces will be able to stand on their own any time soon.

“You’re always going to have this tension of quantity over quality,” said Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Brussels. “The danger of moving too quickly is that you won’t have the cohesiveness, the loyalty, and even the infrastructure to support those soldiers and police fighting. But with the domestic pressure to wrap this up and get it done, it becomes easy to rush it.”

Rondeaux predicted that properly training and equipping an Afghan security force of 400,000 will take at least another five years.

“There is no way to do it fast,” agreed Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, whose own time estimate runs to a decade. “You’ve got to keep providing advisers at the maneuver and staff levels, and work with them every step of the way. Otherwise it’s not going to work.”

By all accounts, the Afghan National Army is a more mature and efficient security force than the Afghan National Police. The force is developing a reputation for facing down the rising insurgency, and NATO training commanders in Kabul say the infrastructure is now in place to build up weaker units in the coming years.

Yet the experience of U.S. forces mentoring Afghan soldiers in Baghlan province last month underlined just how relative that assessment is.

During a Taliban ambush, gunfire was coming at the Americans and their Afghan counterparts from three sides. But the Afghan National Army soldiers of the 209 Corps, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Kandak (battalion), fresh out of training in Kabul, were not ready for a fight.

So after returning initial fire, the Afghan soldiers simply lay in a ditch, refusing to budge.

“They don’t have the basics, so they lay down,” said Capt. Michael Bell, who is one of a team of U.S. and Hungarian mentors tasked with making this young kandak battle-ready. “I ran around for an hour trying to get them to shoot, getting fired on. I couldn’t get them to shoot their weapons.”

Bell, with the 1st Battalion, 148 Infantry Regiment of the Ohio National Guard, and another American soldier treated several superficial wounds — the Afghan soldiers didn’t even have bandages, much less a medic — then finally persuaded most of their Afghan counterparts to get in their pickup trucks and push out.

The experience left the Americans rattled, and exposed just how far NATO coalition forces still must go to ready the Afghan security forces to protect their own country.

Rushing to failure?The Afghan army currently numbers about 97,000 soldiers, with a target of 134,000 by November 2010 and 240,000 by 2013. Meanwhile, the end goal for the 94,000-strong national police force is 160,000. Currently, an average of 2,500 new soldiers and 2,000 new police officers are recruited each month, but the monthly attrition rate is as high as 25 percent.

To grow the force, NATO is creating incentives, including a recent $45 raise for all police. Starting salary for a police officer is now $165 a month.

The pace of training is also expanding. Army training schools in the five regional commands will soon double student numbers and shorten the courses from 10 weeks to eight. Instructors are being readied and massive building is under way to accommodate 1,400 new students this cycle, compared with 600 in previous ones, said NATO Brig. Simon Levey, commander of the Combined Training Advisory Group-Army in Kabul.

“We’ve built both infrastructure and training bases which are absolutely key, and are just coming on line now,” Levey said. “The Afghans are recruiting more vigorously. It’s something we couldn’t do before because the pipeline was not adequate.”

But mentors in Kelagay, for example, say the Afghan corps commanders for their unit refuse to allot adequate training time, regularly sending Afghan army companies out on patrols and operations without a basic knowledge of fighting.

Maj. Jeffery Leslie, whose unit of 58 U.S. mentors and support staff is embedded with a Hungarian Operational Mentor and Liaison Team at the ANA’s Camp Kelagay, wondered if unqualified recruits were being signed up in the push to build up the Afghan army so quickly.

“We suspect the ANA have bad guys in the ranks, whether they are known or unknown to anybody,” Leslie said. “There are ANA units out there that are very capable. I think it’s just too much too fast for the manpower of the country to sustain.”

Leslie said 100 new recruits were sent to Kelagay to replace dozens of deserters, but many of them ran off, too.

“I think they are hitting the bottom of the barrel and pulling in guys who just don’t want to be here,” he said.

Raiding the cookie jarAt Kelagay, the growing pains of a young force are apparent.

After a series of problems, the corps changed out the kandak commander and his executive officer in October for a commander who had run a top-rated Afghan army command before. Mentors say it’s a big improvement, but you can’t change an entire battalion by changing one man.

The mentors report missing vehicles, weapons and other military equipment, and outright theft of fuel provided by the U.S. Then there are the AWOL rates — up to 60 percent, far higher than the average for the Afghan army — and death threats leveled against two different U.S. officers who tried to stop the Afghan soldiers from stealing.

“This kandak would not be ready in five years,” said mentor Sgt. 1st Class Sam Livingston, 35, a guardsman from Cleveland. “I see so much waste and corruption. Even though it’s on a small scale, it’s an indication of what’s going on. Everyone has their hand in the cookie jar.”

Discouraged, he added: “At some point, you begin to question, ‘How much good am I personally doing here?’ ”

Douthwaite, the logistics officer, said he was threatened twice after he began trying to control the steady pilfering of U.S.-supplied fuel.

“It’s a corrupt system all the way from the corps level on down,” he said.

That’s not to say that there are no successes. At the squad level, Staff Sgt. Eric Schabell, an Ohio National Guardsman from Independence, Ky., and a former flight instructor, said he’s happy with small achievements, like teaching the Afghan soldiers how to zero a weapon — a first step in aligning its sights.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised several times by what they already know,” Schabell said. “The [executive officer] and platoon leaders tell me they want their soldiers to be trained. They are happy we are here. They understand the soldiers don’t know their jobs. And I see that they care, and I think that keeps me from getting frustrated.”

Trust, but verifyThe death threats and recent attacks by Afghan forces on U.S. and NATO soldiers make for an uneasy relationship.

In March, an Afghan soldier guarding the tower at Camp Shaheen shot three U.S. soldiers, killing two.

In Wardak province, soldiers from Company A, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment say they’ve come across more than 70 bombs since they arrived in the hostile Tangi Valley last summer.

Two soldiers have been killed and dozens wounded. But their Afghan army partners have never been hit.

“The cold hard facts are that in the Tangi valley, the ANA have not been attacked,” said Staff Sgt. Jim Putman of Company A’s intelligence support team. “Yet here we sit, we’ve had [70]-something IED incidents since July. One would have to assume they’re dirty or paying off the Taliban.”

The Afghan soldiers frequently find improvised explosive devices and snip the command wires instead of marking them and waiting for U.S. forces to come detonate them. The Americans say this just allows the insurgents to return and reconnect them.

Capt. Hayhatullah Adil, the Afghan company commander in the Tangi valley, said his soldiers don’t get hit because they are good at looking for bombs and command wires. Plus, he said, there is a higher Taliban bounty for blowing up U.S. troops, and the villagers know there will be trouble if his soldiers are blown up.

“I will light up the whole village,” Adil said.

Despite the concerns, Marine Staff Sgt. Benjamin Ricard, part of a training team working with the Afghan army, defended the Afghan soldiers last month.

“I walk in front of them, I walk behind them and they all got loaded weapons,” he said. “I don’t question it at all.”

On Nov. 13, Ricard and another Marine were severely injured when a bomb went off under their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. Army Spc. Christopher J. Coffland and a 20-year-old interpreter were killed. U.S. soldiers said they were leading Afghan soldiers to a recently discovered bomb site.

“I have no choice,” Ricard said days before the blast. “It’s my job to trust them.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Leo Shane III and Geoff Ziezulewicz contributed to this story.

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