Will Afghanistan's Military Ever Be Fit to Fight?

The U.S. has spent $26 billion building up the Afghan army. But it is still poorly trained and rife with internal rivalries. Will it ever be fit to fight?

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Massimo Berruti / Agence VU / Aurora Photos

Afghan soldiers undergo training in Kabul

When a fuel tanker overturned on Highway 1 outside Kandahar earlier this year, the villagers saw it as a gift from Allah. They flocked to the leaking tanker with pots, pans, even plastic bags, to steal the leaking gasoline. Several Afghan army jeeps screeched up, and the soldiers jumped out, pushing away the villagers. But not to protect the fuel: the Afghan soldiers simply wanted it for themselves.

At a nearby base, American and Afghan officers were watching the scene from a guard tower. Outraged by the looting, an Afghan captain named Nasser grabbed his M-16 and charged out to confront the soldiers. When the soldiers argued back, the captain fired a few warning shots. A stray bullet sparked the gasoline, and the tanker exploded into a colossal fireball. The smoke clouds, U.S. Lieutenant Rajiv Srinivasan later blogged, "blackened the sky like a tornado moving from the ground up."

Exhausted after arranging the medevac by helicopter of eight dead soldiers and countless injured, Srinivasan then had the bad luck to be hit by an Afghan army truck speeding around the base. As Srinivasan wrote in his blog, all his pent-up frustrations spilled out. He yanked the Afghan out of the truck and slammed him to the ground, yelling, "We're out here busting our asses for you, and you repay us by setting your own soldiers on fire and running me over with your trucks!"

This tale is typical of the myriad frustrations the U.S. and its NATO allies face in trying to cobble together an Afghan national army out of nothing. Yet the success of the Obama Administration's full-throttle assault against the Taliban in its spiritual heartland of Kandahar hinges on getting the Afghan army on its feet and marching. And so does the likelihood of getting U.S. and NATO troops home anytime soon.

It is a nearly impossible mission. Nine out of 10 Afghan enlisted recruits can't read a rifle-instruction manual or drive a car, according to NATO trainers. The officers' corps is fractured by rivalries: Soviet-era veterans vs. the former mujahedin rebels who fought them in the 1980s, Tajiks vs. Uzbeks, Hazaras and Pashtuns. Commanders routinely steal their enlisted men's salaries. Soldiers shake down civilians at road checkpoints and sell off their own American-supplied boots, blankets and guns at the bazaar — sometimes to the Taliban. Afghans, not surprisingly, run when they see the army coming.

Recruits tend to go AWOL after their first leave, while one-quarter of those who stay in service are blitzed on hashish or heroin, according to an internal survey carried out by the Afghan National Army (ANA). One NATO major from Latvia, stationed in the north, complained to a TIME video team that when a battalion's combat tour was extended, three Afghan officers shot themselves in the foot to get medevacked out.

As of April, the army had 119,400 troops; the plan is to reach 171,600 by October 2011, by which time U.S. soldiers will be heading back home. In the rush to get fresh recruits out of the barracks, basic training has been slashed from 10 weeks to eight. (In the U.S. Army, basic training lasts at least 14 weeks.) In trying to meet NATO deadlines for an Afghan troop buildup, Antonio Giustozzi, an Afghanistan expert at the London School of Economics, writes in a recent report, there is "the risk of churning out grossly unqualified soldiers or, as some are beginning to argue, cannon fodder." That's not a lot to show for the estimated $26 billion that the Pentagon says it has pumped into creating the Afghan security forces. And the cost is rising by another $1 billion every month.

The man in charge of spending all this money is three-star general William Caldwell, a wiry Southerner with a lopsided grin and the energy of an entire army platoon. NATO officials, diplomats and military experts in Washington all say Caldwell has brought dynamism and focus to his enormous task since he took charge in late 2009. There is a new urgency: President Obama has pledged to start drawing down some U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the summer of 2011. Given a green light by the Pentagon, Caldwell has brought in hundreds more NATO trainers, many of them from the special forces. He is diversifying the Afghan army so that it is less reliant on NATO for logistical backup. His team is perfecting safeguards to make sure that Afghan commanders do not steal their men's salary, by sending the money electronically to soldiers' bank accounts. Recruitment is up, and the attrition rate — estimates of it range from 20% to 25% — is down from nearly 40% in 2002, according to the International Crisis Group. This is mainly because Caldwell raised the starting wage of a private to $165 a month, plus $45 for combat pay, which is enough for an Afghan to feed his family. It is also a notch higher than what the Taliban is paying its fighters.

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