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The general knows the risks of failure. He recently drove to a moonscape valley in the Kabul hills that serves as a graveyard for discarded Soviet-era weaponry. Gazing at row after row of broken, rusted-out tanks, Caldwell says he asked himself, "All those armored hulks we don't want that to happen to this Afghan army today. How can we ensure that what we build is self-sustaining?" It is a worry echoed by many of the NATO commanders TIME interviewed, who invariably used the expression "collapsing like a house of cards."
It will require loads of money to stave off the ANA's collapse. Not counting training costs, the price tag for just keeping the Afghan army fed, paid, clothed and ready for combat is estimated at more than $6 billion a year, far beyond the Kabul government's yearly earnings of $1 billion in tax revenue, as calculated by the presidential office. This guarantees that the U.S. and its NATO allies will be footing the bill for many years to come. But Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the Rand Corp. in Washington, argues that as a trade-off for pulling forces from Afghanistan, NATO countries would be willing to keep shelling out funds. It is far less than "the cost of international blood if foreign troops are kept on," he says.
Given the astronomical costs, some military experts say the Afghan army would be better off as a smaller force that is swifter, lighter and better trained. One U.S. trainer in Kabul, who asked not to be identified, says, "There's a high-level debate over quality vs. quantity. Not much point raising a big new army if 45,000 of the soldiers are worthless." Critics of the large army point to the success of the seven Afghan commando battalions mentored by U.S. special-forces trainers. According to senior NATO officers, the commandos fought hard during the Marjah offensive in February and acquitted themselves fairly well. NATO officials say the attrition rate for Afghan commandos is a negligible 2%, which may be the result of higher pay ($210 a month and an additional $90 in combat pay) and the Afghans' self-image as daring warriors with no patience for the tedious slog of soldiering. But John Nagl, one of the architects of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan, insists that even a force of 172,000 troops by late 2011 would still be too small. Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, reckons that to crush a rebel force like the Taliban, which has an estimated 25,000 men at arms, it will take one soldier or policeman for every 50 civilians a force of nearly 600,000. Most of the burden, he says, will fall on the military, which is far more respected than the police, whom Afghans regard as little better than bandits in uniform. "The national army is the pillar on which this country will be built," says Nagl. "It's the most respected institution in Afghanistan."
Camp Violet, the ANA's main training ground, lies off the main Kabul-Jalalabad highway, a favorite haunt of suicide bombers crossing the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. I'm riding in an armored SUV with a U.S. military escort, and there's an audible sigh of relief among the passengers when we pull off the highway into the razor-wired safety of Camp Violet. A dirt road climbs into sandy hills cut by ravines where, even after the winter rains, hardly a single blade of grass grows. We halt on an exposed, bare hillside where a company of Afghan soldiers are scattered about with their rifles, learning how to lay an ambush. Flies swarm in their gunsights.