August 18, 2011 / 6:27 AM / 9 years ago

Neil Armstrong rallies Afghan troops

KABUL (Reuters) - Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon, jetted into Afghanistan this week with two other lunar greats to give a much-needed morale boost to the country’s struggling air force.

Former astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, testifies before the House Science and Technology committee hearing on Review of the Proposed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Human Space Flight Plan, on Capitol Hill in Washington May 26, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The 81-year-old American, who became a global sensation in 1969 when he became the first man to set foot on the lunar landscape, met Afghan officers in training at Camp Eggers in Kabul, the headquarters of the NATO-led training mission in Afghanistan.

“Passion is important in every occupation,” the bespectacled Armstrong was quoted by a NATO statement as telling a small group of Afghan Air Force trainees, who were shown in coalition pictures wearing camouflage.

“It’s encouraging to see this young group’s enthusiasm and excitement,” Armstrong told the small, eager crowd, with women clad in black hijabs and men wearing green berets.

Winning the support of new recruits and ordinary Afghans alike is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of a resurgent Taliban and a costly war that has dragged on for 10 years.

Celebrities often greet U.S. servicemen abroad, but such meetings with Afghans are rare.

Armstrong was joined by 83-year-old Jim Lovell, who famously commanded and rescued the botched Apollo 13 mission in 1970, and Gene Cernan, 77, who was the last man to set foot on the moon.

For Afghan trainee Lieutenant Khan Agha Ghaznavi, meeting “these great men who have actually been to the moon and could answer my questions directly... it’s overwhelming”.

NATO is racing against the clock to train Afghanistan’s poorly-equipped and largely illiterate police and army before handing over all security responsibilities to the Afghans by the end of 2014, a process which began in several areas last month.

Critics have warned that progress is slow and security gains cannot be upheld.

A surge in military deaths is being matched by record casualties among civilians in the NATO-led war that is growing more unpopular despite claims of success from both sides.

Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Bryson Hull and Elaine Lies

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