NAKHONAY, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Standing beside a machinegun in a sand-bagged watch tower, an Afghan soldier contemplates a future once Western forces leave the country.
“The Taliban will capture us in five minutes,” said Mohammad Azim at a Kandahar base shared by NATO and Afghan army troops, close to villages where militants easily blend in with the population.
Afghanistan’s stability hinges to a great extent on the performance of the army, especially after U.S. troops start pulling out in 2011.
Failure to pacify the Taliban could seriously damage Barack Obama’s presidency. He hopes deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops and the training of Afghan troops will help get the job done.
The Afghan army may face their biggest test over the next few months.
Western and Afghan troops are intensifying security operations in Kandahar province to prevent the Taliban from undermining the government’s strategy of winning over the public by providing better services, infrastructure and jobs, and stamping out corruption.
NATO officials say it won’t be too long before the Afghan army can take on the Taliban, even though tens of thousands of Western forces failed to defeat them in nine years of war.
But a different picture emerges from an interview with Afghan army Lt. Ali Hussain, who spends much of his day on his computer studying photographs of the latest Taliban bombs.
He goes over a long mental list of what the Afghan army needs to ensure the Taliban don’t take over once foreign forces leave ... planes, helicopters, tanks, heavy weapons and night vision goggles.
Aside from trying to raise the morale of poorly equipped soldiers, Hussain struggles for intelligence on the Taliban, who he says slip into villages at night to brutalize people so they don’t back the state.
Lt. Hussain estimates there are 25 hard core Taliban fighters in the area. Although he has an idea of who their commanders may be, it is difficult to track militants without people on the ground.
One of his soldiers, Abdulwakil, just spent weeks on the frontline fighting the Taliban.
“They fire at us, and then we shoot at them. Eventually they lay down their weapons and they look like everybody else,” he said.
Hussain hopes tribal elders, businessmen and Western forces will bring investments so there are tangible incentives for people to back the government.
He has taken part in nine suras, or local councils to help reach that aim. Six kilometers of road have been built under pledges made in the meetings.
But a lot more needs to be done.
Unlike Western forces on the base, who have endless access to chilled mineral water, he drinks from a warm bottle for lack of a refrigerator as he watches television to check on Afghanistan’s security situation.
There may be no good news until Western troops teach Afghan soldiers to fight for themselves and money pours into Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland.
When that happens is anybody’s guess.
“It’s the million dollar question,” said Major Austin Douglas, Officer Commanding Bravo Company. “It’s not good to get people’s expectations up and give them a date.”
Editing by David Fox