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Asia Crisis

Fledging Afghan army grapples with high expectations

(For more on Afghanistan, click [ID:nAFPAK])

KABUL, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Gun shots ring sharply across a valley littered with rusting hulks of Soviet tanks as Afghan soldiers crouch down and open fire into the dusty haze.

No one fires back and enemy positions are empty.

Here at the Kabul Military Training Centre, the exercise is part of U.S. efforts to put the Afghan army on its own feet in hopes that, one day, Western troops could leave Afghanistan.

Once a Soviet military base, the facility is now at the heart of plans by General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. and NATO military chief in Afghanistan, to create a strong enough Afghan fighting force capable of defending its country from the Taliban.

Progress is painfully slow. Plagued by illiteracy, corruption and desertion, the army is not yet far from what it was just a few years ago: a motley crew of militia fighters.

"This army is a microcosm of the greater population. A lot of the things that are holding back the army also exist on the civilian side," said Colonel Dennis Brown, the training centre's acting chief of staff.

"We have to work and take small steps ... so we can leave once we get the military to defend their country. So we can leave. And our mission will be done."

The plan is to expand the army from 90,000 to 134,000 soldiers by late 2011 -- and create an effective force that could take over security in Afghanistan, much as is happening in Iraq.

A rise in civilian deaths, particularly in air strikes by NATO forces, has fuelled Afghan anger and contributed to calls for a greater role of the Afghan army in anti-Taliban operations.

Recruits come from all over Afghanistan and anyone in good health in welcome. In a country at war, many arrive already hardened by battle but lack professional training and discipline.

"A lot of these guys have a lot of experience," said Staff Sergeant David Adams, a U.S. mentor from Arizona as he pointed at a group of soldiers receiving instructions in the blistering heat on how to storm and secure buildings.

"If you talk to these guys about how to execute an ambush, they've done it many more times than I have," he added, smiling. "Now we need to turn it into a winning force."

COSTLY EFFORT

The sprawling training centre is like a city in itself, complete with pot-holed roads, shooting ranges, ruins of Soviet facilities and biscuit-coloured hills flanking it from all sides.

Supervised by NATO trainers, hundreds of Afghans go through rounds of exercise every day. Perched on the outskirts of Kabul, the centre churns out 25,000 trained soldiers a year.

Clad in brand-new uniforms, Afghans clutch their M-15 assault rifles somewhat awkwardly during exercises -- part of a plan to re-equip an army long used to Russian-designed AK-47s.

Yet many cannot read and write -- a challenge when it comes to explaining how to use sophisticated modern weaponry.

"A lot of them are illiterate so that's a problem," Staff Sergeant David Miller, a mentor from California. "You just got to keep things very simple for these guys."

Desertion is a big problem. Up to seven percent of soldiers disappear after a few weeks of training, mentors say, raising suspicions that some of the skills are leaking to the Taliban.

"There is no way to be 100 percent certain that we are not training the Taliban," said Colonel Brown.

NATO forces are gradually handing over the training to Afghan officers in an effort to turn the army into a self-sufficient force capable of recruiting and training its own men.

It is expensive. It already costs $8 billion a year to train and maintain the Afghan army. With an entire economy worth only about $11 billion, Afghanistan is unable to sustain such a force on its own, making it dependent on foreign cash.

A point of resentment shared by soldiers in most armies, Afghan recruits often complain about low wages. These concerns are embittered by the fact that wages, at about $120 a month, often lag behind what the Taliban pay their foot soldiers.

"We need more money," said Sergeant Hakimullah, an Afghan officer who supervises some of the training. "What I get is not enough to support my family of 15."

The eventual goal described by the commander of U.S. and NATO forces would be to nearly triple the army's size to 240,000 -- a challenge for a country with an average life expectancy of 45 years and where only a third of the population can read or write.

NATO forces say they are ready to overcome the difficulties.

"What we are not trying to do here is create a British army or American army. Afghanistan is very different culture," said Captain Fred Bell, a British mentor. "If we are not optimistic we might as well go home now." (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see:

here

) (Editing by Sugita Katyal)

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