New Afghan army eager for action

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The new base commander trooped the line of men and found a ragged rank of eager faces, in an array of caps, turbans and bare heads, in battered shoes and sandals, with a mismatched arsenal of AK-47s, machine guns and even a single-shot rifle -- a genuine bolt-action antique.

Instead of smart salutes, the smiling troops stuck out their hands. The old warlord smiled and obliged.

Here was the newborn Afghan army, almost four months after the old one fled.

At Amir Lalai's 15th Brigade garrison, a sprawling military base flattened in the recent war, and at other locations across Afghanistan, ex-fighters are being brought in by tribal commanders to form a national armed force for the "new" Afghanistan.

Training started

Six hundred of them, including 80 sent by Lalai's staff, began basic training three weeks ago in Kabul, the Afghan capital, under the eyes of British, German and other military instructors.

But thousands of others in tent camps or barracks blocks are waiting, idly and untrained, for something to happen, for word of uniforms on order, for the latest rumors that Americans would train them, for their daily plate of onion and potato, their only pay.

For officers, it's not much better: A collection had to be taken up among businessmen in the southern city of Kandahar to pay Lalai's officers two months' wages.

"There are no salaries for the soldiers," said Ahmed Wali Karzai, a member of the Kandahar province military council and brother of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. "People were expecting more once the fighting was over, that more international help would be coming this way."

Twenty-three years of internal war -- between Afghan irregulars and the Soviets, among irregular "mujahedeen" groups, between the opposition and the Taliban -- destroyed the old army structure of the 1970s.

The new leadership in Kabul, installed after a U.S.-led war ousted the Taliban, has set an ambitious goal: rebuilding an army of 200,000 men to take over from the Americans and a U.N. force in keeping the peace and defending against a Taliban comeback.

The new army also will have to head off a return to the tribal and territorial rivalries that have torn Afghanistan apart in the past.

In a large, gutted second-floor room at the 15th Brigade base, Lalai gathered 150 subcommanders Sunday to welcome them into the new army. All around, over almost a square mile, lay the ruins of more than 60 buildings and almost 1,000 vehicles destroyed in the U.S. bombing of Taliban military targets last October.

Sitting cross-legged on the rug-covered concrete, each of the "kommandans" was the leader of two dozen or more fighters.

Commanders afterward said all were joining, and morale was high. But problems were obvious.

Age requirements

For one, the government directed that the army enlist rank-and-file fighters only between ages 22 and 28. Most past "heroes" are beyond that. "They'll have to be given civilian jobs in the government," Lalai's political officer, Maj. Maik Mohammad, said of the older fighters.

Money to pay them will be scarce, however.

The 4,600 recruits gathered at the 15th Brigade garrison are housed in rough tents or in nooks and crannies among barracks and offices shattered by bombing, a poor environment for effective training.

"It will take months to turn them into a disciplined army," said former warlord Amir Sher Ahmed Haqyar, a chief aide to Lalai.

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