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Afghan army still far from ready to go it alone

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          "It sends a message to the rest of the village that family members will be questioned about relatives who join the Taliban," said Warzajy. But he acknowledged such tactics were of limited use. "We might find some villagers who are helpful, but a lot of them are followers of the Taliban and when we get the Taliban they are angry with us."

          To his own men he came across as tough but caring as he addressed them before they set off on patrol. A soldier who turned up looking a bit slovenly got a tongue-lashing: "You! Don’t you know how to hold a weapon? Remember what you have been trained to do." And to the troops in general: "Be careful how you patrol. In every situation you should know what to do. Follow your training. Be proud."

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          The shortcomings in equipment and training were evident in the chaotic scene on a night when the Afghan troops were supposed to tie up with U.S. Special Forces for an operation but were late to the rendezvous spot and, lacking night-vision equipment, had trouble finding their American colleagues.

          The night-vision goggles are a particularly sore point. A report from the U.S. Defense Department in June said 7,157 sets have been issued to the Afghan army and police but noted concerns that several hundred were unaccounted for. The goggles are designated as "sensitive defense articles" that mustn’t fall into enemy hands.

          A  big worry voiced by analysts tracking the new force’s progress is that to build it, the U.S. and NATO embraced militias loyal to anti-Taliban warlords, most of them divided along ethnic lines. Can the army remain a cohesive peacekeeping body after 2014? "In general, I’m quite pessimistic and think the odds are high of Afghanistan returning to violent civil war," said Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a conflict-management group.

          A former senior U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his previous posting, anticipated the ANA would cede large swaths of territory to the Taliban, pulling back to defend areas considered critical to the government’s survival. He said night raids would almost certainly cease.

          Martine van Bijlert of the Afghan Analysis Network, a think tank in Kabul, said the Afghanistan National Army was conceived and built in haste.

          After eleven years of the U.S. and NATO presence "you could have trained a pretty good officer core, if you had planned for it and had invested in the longer term," she said. "But in practice, much of the efforts were geared to either quickly getting boots on the ground as auxiliary forces to the U.S. and other international troops or to reaching virtual numbers that could be reported on."

          The approach of 2014 "has focused minds somewhat," she said, "but there still is a tendency to focus on optimistic progress reports in the face of a very messy reality."

          Allen told the AP that American personnel were putting much effort into training the new army to plan missions, execute them and learn from them, but said he needed 20 percent more training staff than he has. "It’s an ongoing request and I don’t miss an opportunity to emphasize that we really do need these folks," he said.

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          Many of the Afghan soldiers interviewed voiced their loyalty to their new army. At the same time most said their reason for enlisting was to get a salary and escape poverty, and they tended to assume that the Taliban’s recruits joined for the same reason. Opinions of what would happen after the Western forces left were mixed. 

          "I just want them to leave because we should protect our own country," said Abdul Basir, a soldier from northern Kunduz province.

          But Col. Asif Khan Saburi, who is in charge of training new recruits at 203 Thunder Corps, was concerned for the future.

          "We need more time," he said. "It is not the time for the forces to go from here."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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