- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan — This country’s national army gained a new battalion this week, boosting the force to 6,000 and raising hopes that government troops will one day take control from warlord militias that hold sway over large parts of the country.

The 663 soldiers and 13 officers of the 11th Battalion paraded to a military band and drilled with assault rifles at a ceremony at their Kabul training ground. It was the first time in decades that Afghan, rather than foreign, instructors trained an entire battalion. Officers received training from French instructors on how to run 12-week basic-training courses.

The unit is the first combat-support battalion for the army’s 3rd Brigade. Its soldiers will provide engineering, medical and scout skills. The United States has provided uniforms and other basic equipment. Weapons came from former Soviet bloc countries.

Gen. Juma Mohammed Naser, the head of Defense Ministry’s training department, told the graduates that the national army would be crucial for providing security for the constitutional council, or jirga, scheduled for December, and nationwide elections, planned for June.

The U.S. headquarters in Afghanistan said in a statement that the battalion’s graduation “is another step toward building a strong national army.”

No precise ethnic breakdown of the new battalion was given, but recruits were drawn from the Pashtun group dominant in the south, as well as Tajiks, who dominated the Northern Alliance before it overthrew the Taliban regime with the help of a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. Other soldiers come from the Hazara and Uzbek minorities.

Afghan leaders have said they want a force of 70,000, but training has been slow. Foreign sponsors say it could take at least five years to reach that goal.

The problem is aggravated because President Hamid Karzai’s government holds little influence outside Kabul, and the rest of the country is controlled by local warlords.

Taliban insurgents and their al Qaeda allies have stepped up attacks against Afghan authorities and humanitarian workers in the south and the east. In recent months, Afghan soldiers and members of the 11,500-strong U.S.-led coalition force have been deployed to fight insurgents.

The Afghanistan Defense Ministry says it will open three recruiting centers across the country by the end of October and has issued a leaflet offering recruits “opportunities for exciting training, adventure and travel all over Afghanistan as they build a stable and secure country.”

The leaflet promises an Afghan national army private a monthly wage of about $50 — a potentially persuasive sum in a country where an average family makes less than $20 per month — and three hot meals a day.

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