Cover Story
Associated Press/Photo by Dar Yasin

The surge within

Afghan forces are growing at an accelerated rate, but can they grow fast enough and good enough to fight-and lead-a war against the Taliban?

Issue: "Warrior class," Aug. 28, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan-Wind lashes the promontory dubbed "One Tree Hill" but shows no marked effect on the army moving over the ridges and plains stretched out before it. The morning sun is just up, yet already 3,000 soldiers are spilling over rocky ground, hours into a course that has them sprawled, an army of specks at this distance but up close mired in dust and gravel, moving on elbows, weapons up, ready for ambush.

Down range a company of 350, up since 3:30 a.m., is well along in combat training while some of its rank sit crouched, backpacks laid behind them in precision rows, taking lessons in counterinsurgency from Afghan officers. Gunshot rings off the far mountains from 10 firing ranges. Humvees crawl in seeming slow motion across roads, some carved out of the dirt, some gravel, laid over the otherwise indistinguishable wadis and lowlands.

In the foreground between One Tree Hill and a graveyard of rusting Soviet tanks, minesweepers in white shirts work their way patiently across a field, metal detectors roving back and forth, reconfirming that it's clear of deadly traps. And on the promontory another corps is about to engage in urban warfare using houses just constructed for the purpose, while an 18-year-old recruit named Navid stands watch near a sandbagged lookout.

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So expansive is the early morning routine at Kabul Military Training Center, a daydreamer might contrive that he's fallen into a Robert Louis Stevenson poem like a "giant great and still that sits upon the pillow-hill" watching the "leaden soldiers go with different uniforms and drills."

But the heat and high wind lend assurance enough that this is no land of counterpane. On any given day this 22,000-acre site east of Kabul swarms with two or more brigades: about 7,500 basic trainees, plus an officer training brigade of roughly 1,500, plus another 3,000 or so instructors-including hundreds of U.S. and coalition forces who mentor the Afghan officers and provide other support.

"In the last year the Afghan Army has surged itself," said Lt. Col. Michael Loos, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry sent here to help advance Afghanistan's own military expansion. On the eve of the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and the launch of war against Afghanistan, this is a not yet one-year-old experiment Loos calls "industrial in nature": Behind the U.S. combat surge and renewed fighting in the southern provinces is the lesser-noted surge to train the people of Afghanistan to secure their own future. The immediate goal: to build a fighting force of 170,000 by 2011.

Ahead of schedule the Afghan National Army (ANA) 2010 benchmark-increasing soldier strength to 134,000-has been met, Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense announced this month. Recruits are showing up in greater numbers than expected, and the Kabul training center (or KMTC), which trains about half of enlistees nationwide, is putting them through the paces and pushing them out to combat positions at a rate of about 1,500 per week. In some cases, recruits who trained here six months ago already are back, training new recruits while gaining more skills themselves.

Building a new standing army and police force is a mammoth undertaking, and it costs U.S. taxpayers nearly $1 billion a month. Done right, say U.S. commanders, it marks a new beginning for Afghan security, and the beginning of the end for frontline U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But as U.S. commanders-and recent U.S. deaths-attest, none of it is easy.

The tempo rapidly shifted at the KMTC soon after President Barack Obama gave a nationally televised speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. Most assumed the 30,000 additional troops that he ordered to Afghanistan were headed straight to combat against a growing insurgency. But he also intended the U.S. surge for "building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan."

Loos said he received word five days later that his unit, based out of Fort Drum, N.Y., would be among the first to go, and its mission would be not to fight insurgents but to train Afghans how to.

By January he and his unit were on the ground in Kabul. When they arrived, Camp Alamo-a blast-wall enclosed enclave that houses U.S. forces at the KMTC-had 150 military personnel; now it houses 750. The buildup represents an investment in training that senior commanders say is essential to a responsible U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

"If you don't resource the training mission with a sense of urgency, all you do is delay the date of the transition," said Col. John Ferrari, head of budget and planning at the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. "If we can't grow or sustain the Afghan forces, we've gone backwards."


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