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.
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."
But Ferrari admits that mission will extend beyond a U.S. withdrawal phase slated to begin one year from now. "The Afghans won't be able to afford their security forces on their own for many years," he said. "The GDP is not large, and it has a huge unmet social need that the government must address."
After the current "build" phase-with intensified recruitment and training plus pay, equipment, and facilities for an army-Ferrari estimates it will cost $6 billion-$8 billion a year to sustain Afghan forces. The country's GDP stands currently at about $13.5 billion. "It's an enormous amount of money. However, today we have close to 98,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and it costs us about $8 billion a month to have them here. So $8 billion a year versus $8 billion a month-the return on the investment is huge."
But any success, Ferrari noted, depends on improving the Afghan government's legitimacy and fighting corruption-and extends beyond what a fighting force can do: "The goal is to connect the Afghan people to its government. If the people believe in its government, then it will side with the government of Afghanistan rather than the insurgents. You sometimes hear about the U.S. winning hearts and minds, but in the end we are going to leave. The hearts and minds that have to be won are for the Afghan government."
Early on during the tour of the KTMC, Lt. Col. Loos, who serves as its senior coalition adviser, declares himself to be an optimist. It's his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, and changes are everywhere. "I'm spending a lot of time with the Afghans this time, and they give me hope. And then there's the traffic and the commerce. . . . Intuitively if there's development and people driving around and setting up vegetable markets and bazaars, there has to be some amount of confidence that security is better," he said.
Programs like the one at KMTC have sprung up this year around the country, including in hot zones like Kandahar (where two coalition police trainers, including one American, were killed in June)-and they extend beyond the prototypical young, all-male, warrior-class corps.
The Afghan Army's first class of female officers since 2002 is scheduled to graduate from a 20-week training course in September. After testing 44 candidates, the course is down to 29. Not surprisingly, it's faced challenges: The program operates in a completely segregated section of an ANA officer's school in Kabul, and the women have no contact with male counterparts. Many of the women lacked officer candidate skills, some even the equivalency of a high-school education and basic literacy. One I interviewed was only 17 years old, (though the ANA advertised the program for 18- to 35-year-olds) and all came into the program struggling with low self-esteem-natural victims of a society that has treated most women as property.
"We wonder if they are going to be integrated into the military," said drill sergeant Janice Luller, who, along with seven other U.S. female reservists, volunteered to spend six months in Afghanistan to jump-start women's training.
Half of the women in this new program are married and some have children. They anticipate administrative jobs or working with other women in the military, but don't know where they will be assigned. Most said they received family approval to join but don't tell neighbors and friends what they're doing for fear they could become targets of militants.
Luller said all have improved their skills and morale, and most say they enjoy physical training as well as class work. "Seeing what they are up against, and seeing that they are the first class in a male-dominated society, it's my vision that they feel confident and strong at the end of this, that they don't have to bow down to men who have not worked as hard as they have," she said.
Another experimental program run by the KMTC is training chaplain officers. The first 10-week course graduated 26 officers on July 24. Their task is to provide "Islamic religious support" to Afghan soldiers, which, according to Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Frederick McGuffin, who supervises training, means giving moral counsel and "countering the message of the insurgents." McGuffin said the ANA's goal is to graduate a class of 30-60 officers every 10 weeks.
McGuffin, ordained by the Baptist General Convention of Texas and on his first tour in Afghanistan, said, "I advise and make sure they are going down the right trail." Courses involve training in "Islamic values taught in a moderate fashion," he said, along with literacy and computers. McGuffin believes it's a crucial part of counterinsurgency training, and imams (who actually teach the classes but are closely screened and known to officers, he said) emphasize "that the Quran doesn't teach things the insurgency is saying."
"Afghan recruits will hear that you are not allowed to pray, that you have to convert to Christianity when they join the Army," said McGuffin. By having in the ranks chaplains, formally called "religious and cultural affairs officers," he said, "that message is countered."
The KMTC program also isn't shying away from former Islamic fighters known as mujahedeen. In one classroom 160 of them, all middle-age warriors (average age: 42) who at various times took on the Taliban and each other, sit together in wooden desks, learning army skills with supervision from eight French and Swiss military advisors.
The accelerated training buildup, in numbers and scope, begs the question: How lasting and successful will it be? "What we are doing," said Afghanistan expert Andrew Exum, "is buying time for Afghan political leaders to make political deals and build up their security forces, especially their intelligence, army, and police corps."
Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who served active duty in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, told me numbers aren't the best measure of success. "The army has to think in terms of competence of individuals and units-the core tasks that individuals perform and then the core tasks of a unit have to be examined in combat." Does a unit have a high or low desertion rate? Does it fire on the enemy rapidly and successfully? "I feel confident that by next summer, maybe by mid-winter, we will be able to evaluate for quality," he said.
Those evaluations, in fact, will drive the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. "The debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan is a lot more narrow than we sometimes think," said Exum. "It is not about whether to stay in large numbers or withdraw. It's about how quickly we can transition to some sort of assistance mission." Exum believes political leaders, even in an election year, won't risk a sped-up withdrawal without having built up Afghanistan's security forces.
Col. Ferrari equates that buildup to the Marshall Plan following World War II. Gen. George Marshall's strategy to restructure and rebuild Europe "was a reaction to the post-hot-war environment but actually the beginning of the Cold War. Gen. Marshall felt we were about to lose the peace after winning the war. It's the same here."
A key difference is that Afghanistan's war is not a state-on-state struggle, but Ferrari insists that Marshall understood what the United States is just coming to grips with: "You can't kill your way to victory here. You have to build the capacity of the people and the government, because that's what will bring people over to side of the government and not the Taliban."
"You sound like an optimist," I said, sitting in Ferrari's cramped plywood paneled office at Camp Eggers. "Are you?"
"I'm a realist," said Ferrari, who's just been over the reports of the week's casualties: workers kidnapped and killed building a police training center in Wardak Province; Navy personnel kidnapped and killed south of Kabul; defense contractors shot on a firing range during training; and civilian contractors hit by gunfire just the previous night.
"Every day is hard. Every day is challenging. Everything we do is hard. This is an enemy that is fighting for its way of life, and until it is convinced that it cannot win it's going to be hard, and costly in terms of lost lives, and will go on longer than people think, and will be more violent than people think. There are a hundred ways it could go wrong, and in order for it to go right every one of those has to go right."
Afghan recruitment plus $11 billion a year in U.S. taxpayer funds aim to buy a new Afghan security force
Afghan National Army
August 2009:94,500 troops
August 2010:134,000 troops
By October 2011: 171,000 troops
Afghan National Police
August 2009:90,100 policemen
August 2010:108,000 policemen
By October 2011:134,000 policemen
Sources: Afghanistan Conflict Monitor, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan
To hear Mindy Belz discuss this topic on the Knowing the Truth radio program, click here.
10-15-99 UN Security Council creates al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, imposing sanctions and linking the groups as terrorist entities.
9-9-01 Al-Qaeda operatives assassinate Ahmad Shah Massoud, commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. With Massoud gone, bin Laden is assured Taliban protection following 9/11.
9-11-01 Al-Qaeda operatives crash three planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, while a fourth never reaches its target but crashes in Pennsylvania.
9-18-01 President George W. Bush signs a joint resolution authorizing the use of force against perpetrators of 9/11. It passed the Senate, 98-0, and House, 420-1.
10-4-01 NATO invokes Article 5-stating that an attack on one member nation is an attack on all-for the first time in its history.
10-7-01 Operation Enduring Freedom launches with a bombing campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
11-01 The Taliban begins to retreat as strongholds crumble, including Kabul, the capital, on Nov. 13.
12-5-01 Afghan factions sign the Bonn Agreement, installing Hamid Karzai as the interim administration head and creating a peacekeeping force (ISAF) for maintaining security in Kabul.
12-9-01 Taliban leader Mullah Omar flees as the Taliban surrenders control of Kandahar, its last stronghold. Later, Osama bin Laden escapes capture in Tora Bora.
4-17-02 Bush calls for reconstruction of Afghanistan, with Congress appropriating more than $38 billion.
6-20-02 Afghan delegates pick Karzai to head the country's transitional government.
5-01-03 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declares an end to major combat.
8-03 NATO takes control of international security forces.
1-04 Afghan delegates agree on a national constitution.
10-9-04 Voters pick Karzai as Afghanistan's first democratically elected leader.
9-18-05 Afghans, including women, vote for the Council of People, Council of Elders, and local councils in what's considered the most democratic elections held in the nation.
7-06 Violence resurges across Afghanistan sparked by weak government and lack of security forces.
8-22-08 Civilian casualties draw condemnation and spur an overhaul of U.S. air strike procedures.
2-17-09 President Barack Obama renews commitment to Afghanistan by announcing plans to send 17,000 more troops.
5-11-09 Gen. Stanley McChrystal replaces Gen. David McKiernan as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
7-09 U.S. Marines launch a major offensive in southern Afghanistan to counter growing insurgency.
11-09 August presidential election ends without a winner after Karzai failed to receive at least 51 percent of the vote. A week before the runoff his main rival pulls out of the race, leaving Karzai the victor amid corruption charges.
12-1-09 Obama announces a troop surge of 30,000 troops and sets July 2011 as a target to begin withdrawal.
6-23-10 Gen. David Petraeus replaces McChrystal after Rolling Stone magazine publishes controversial statements McChrystal and his aides made about the Obama administration.
7-31-10 Largest number of U.S. deaths in war, 66, recorded this month.
-compiled by Kristin Chapman