KABUL, Afghanistan -- Platoon by platoon, battalion by battalion, U.S. and other foreign trainers are piecing together the building blocks of an Afghan national army. But the buildup some once thought would take a year is dragging out.
"I wouldn't put a time frame on it," said the U.S. colonel in charge. The Kabul leadership all have "different ideas" on how to proceed, an Afghan general said. "It will take perhaps three, four, five years," a key French officer concluded.
Meantime, peace in Afghanistan may hang in the balance.
The eventual departure of U.S. combat forces may hinge on how soon trained Afghan troops can take over the job of guarding against a resurgence by the defeated Taliban.
The newest platoons marched back and forth through a dust storm at the training base outside Kabul on Tuesday, as the 2nd Battalion, Afghan National Army, was ceremoniously graduated from its 10-week basic course.
Low pay a problem
The young men moved smartly in their green camouflage uniforms, toting AK-47 assault rifles. Beforehand, they spoke enthusiastically of a military career. But even in brief conversations with a reporter, potential problems were evident: The $30-a-month salary, rising to $50 after graduation, is barely the pay of an Afghan ditch-digger.
"That's enough to do just a little bit of shopping," said a big, square-jawed soldier named Jamalgul. "You need at least $100 to live on."
And even those low salaries have to be financed by the Americans and French.
The deputy defense minister, Lt. Gen. Aqitullah Barialai, said that the fiscal challenge of a national army is daunting to Afghanistan's eight-month-old transitional regime. "We cannot afford those salaries for an entire army," he conceded.
Men who dropped out because of low pay and other factors depleted the initial training contingents. The first two battalions -- the first trained by the Americans, the second by the French -- totaled just 300 men each, half a standard battalion size.
A simple lack of housing for trainees is a major limiting factor. Most of the concrete barracks at the old training base outside Kabul were destroyed during 23 years of war. Even collecting qualified recruits from around a country with a devastated transportation system is a tough job, said the top American training officer, Lt. Col. Kevin M. McDonnell.
"The whole thing is a difficult process," said McDonnell, whose battalion of the 5th Special Forces Group is the U.S. training unit. "There's just no other way to do it."
French commander Lt. Col. Philippe Segerand, who forecast it could take up to five years to produce an Afghan army, also said the time frame was not the prime concern.
"What is important is to launch the process," he said.
In the early heady months after a U.S.-led offensive toppled the Taliban regime, some Afghan officers thought they could have tens of thousands of trained men in uniform within 12 months. But now the U.S. command has set a modest goal of producing 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers by year's end. The French and Americans expect to do that by instructing more units at once, and they will be joined by Turkish trainers.
Still, the end result will be a tiny fraction of an army -- a force whose total strength itself is still debated in inconclusive meetings of the Afghan military brass.
"We all have our different ideas of what to do," Maj. Gen. Shair Mohammad Karimi, a senior military adviser, told a reporter. The generals have not decided, for example, whether border troops should be part of an army.
United Nations specialists have suggested an Afghan army of 60,000 men. But Barialai, chairman of the Defense Ministry's army commission, said Afghanistan needs a military of 140,000 to 150,000. "This is my idea, and it's the best idea, and I believe they (the Cabinet) are going to accept it," he said.
In an apparent sign of progress, Barialai's commission this month produced a nine-page plan of "principles and guidelines." To build a national army, it said, the first priority must be registration and collection of weapons, in a country with an estimated 700,000 men under arms, almost all loyal not to the central government, but to local warlords.
In a sign of how far the Afghans still have to go, however, the paper notes that this weapons program will have to be delayed until 600 military officers are found to be brought to Kabul from around the country "to learn the methods of disarmament."