Maj. Khalil Ahmad Ramni, of the Afghan National Army, trains the trainers at the shooting ranges at the Kabul Military Training Center.

Maj. Khalil Ahmad Ramni, of the Afghan National Army, trains the trainers at the shooting ranges at the Kabul Military Training Center. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

Mideast edition, Tuesday, May 8, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — When buses carrying new recruits arrive at the Kabul Military Training Academy, they pull up to the main entrance and stop for the requisite vehicle check.

Seated inside, staring out a window, most recruits have to notice the motto written in large letters on the metal sign arching above the gate. And one can only wonder what they must be thinking as they read: “Unity Starts Here.”

“I’m very excited,” said Rahmudin Amiry, a 19-year-old from Parwan Province, a recruit who just crossed the threshold.

“I came by my own choice,” Amiry said, speaking through an interpreter as he surveyed the rifle range for the first time. “And I will serve my life for Afghan people, Afghan country, to bring security and peace.”

Amiry, a Tajik, is part of a broad effort to bring ethnic representation to the Afghan military and police. The endeavor isn’t new. From the beginning, Afghan and U.S. officials have made an effort to build a force ethnically proportionate to the 31 million Afghan people.

The policy of ethnic balance extends all the way down to the battalions, if not further. In short, battalion-size units are expected to have a mix that is roughly 42 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 13 percent Hazara, 9 percent Uzbek, with the remaining 9 percent divided up between such peoples as the Turkmen, Aimaq and Baluch.

When they join the army, “they all have the same stressful conditions to prove themselves and be good soldiers,” said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin, head of the military and police training mission here. “They share those challenges, they share those arduous times, and they start to bond.”

Afghanistan is a place where tribal ties have historically superseded regional and national interests. To a great extent, that remains true today, but enough Afghans also seem to be embracing the notion of nation.

Two years ago, when the issue of ethnicity was raised with a couple of soldiers in Herat, they looked downright perplexed.

“These things are in the past,” a platoon sergeant said.

At the army training center last week, Army 1st Sgt. Don Webber said he has “seen a couple of fights break out” between recruits of different ethnic origins. Webber didn’t know what caused them, but he said the scraps could have just as easily been triggered by something other than race. And besides, he added, dust-ups of that nature occur in all militaries, including the United States’.

In Durbin’s opinion, the Afghans seem just as concern about bridging the geographical divide. The army, for example, has soldiers from all 32 provinces, but there are significant imbalances, particularly in the south and west, areas that traditionally have been anti-coalition. A recruiting effort is now under way to try to rectify that.

Remarkably, the drive to bring diversity to the army and police has even extended to women, long denied many rights afforded to Afghan men.

The Afghan National Army currently has between 300 and 400 women, mostly in the health care arena. The Afghan National Police force has nearly 300 women, and more are being pursued through an aggressive recruiting campaign. At least two women are ANP instructors.

That level of acceptance into such a traditional male domain, Durbin said, “was a surprise to me.” Many women, he added, “want to serve their nation, and they have that opportunity.”

Back at the military training center, Afghan soldiers have latched onto the Shakespearean phrase “band of brothers,” popularized by the American television mini-series.

“They like that term,” the general said.

However, the ranking Afghan noncommissioned officer, Sgt. Major Safi Roshan, shook off an earlier American suggestion for that sign at the front gate of the KMTC.

A graduate of the U.S. Army’s sergeant major academy in El Paso, Texas, Roshan thought “victory starts here” missed the mark. So Roshan coined the slogan that greets all incoming Afghan recruits.

To Roshan, Durbin said, “it’s all about unity.”

Fewer Afghans going AWOL

KABUL, Afghanistan — A year ago, one in three soldiers in the Afghan National Army went AWOL.

Today, that ratio is down to about one in 10, according to U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin, the commander of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.

“The real root cause of unauthorized absences is poor leadership,” he said.

While some leaders in the Afghan army — and maybe even in the U.S. military — might take issue with that indictment, others could point to changes the Afghan senior leadership made to stem the tide. Those adjustments, mainly an improved command climate and predictable deployment cycles, were evidently enough to get the desired result, at least for the time being.

Durbin believes the percentage of Afghan soldiers who are absent without leave could be further reduced from the current 11 percent to 5 percent.

“In some cases,” Durbin said, “it was a matter of just soldiers trying to get money back to their family, and we had geographically displaced them because we did the right thing and had an ethnically balanced army.”

Travel in much of Afghanistan can be a long, bone-jarring, arduous adventure. It can take an Afghan soldier, for example, a couple of weeks to go from his military post in Kandahar to his ancestral home in Mazar-e-Sharif and back down to Kandahar, a round-trip distance of about 750 miles.

“The infrastructure here isn’t the best in the world to be able to quickly zip home and back,” said Durbin, who oversees the training program for Afghan security forces.

Nor is there an adequate banking system that permits a soldier to electronically send cash home to his family, though that may be changing. The Afghan National Police apparently has embarked on a program to allow for such transfers, something the ANA is looking into, officials said.

Another remedy is building in leave time within a deployment cycle so a soldier and his family can plan and budget their money around that schedule.

But certainly not all of the AWOLs left with the intention of returning. Some scooted out the door and never looked back. In those instances, when possible, the ANA sends someone to the recruit’s village to shame him back into the fold, seeing as he is under a three-year enlistment contract.

“Honor is very high in this culture,” Durbin said. “If they have given their word, they will keep their word.”

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