Friday, November 26, 2004

Hours after Congress approved $400 million for training and equipping the Afghan national army, U.S. military officials told reporters in Afghanistan that they hope to hand over their bases to Afghan troops one day.

The goal, expressed at a briefing last weekend by officers of the U.S. Army Reserve’s 367th Engineer Battalion near Kabul, is shared by the international community, which is helping the United States raise a national army in Afghanistan.

“It’s difficult, but definitely achievable,” said one of the officers briefing journalists at the Bagram Air Base near Kabul.

Afghan officials concede that raising an army from the ruins of a war and civil strife that plagued their country for more than 20 years will not be easy, but they note that not too long ago Afghanistan had a professional army. The Afghan army, trained and equipped by the Soviets, disintegrated in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Last Saturday evening, Congress approved $400 million for Afghanistan’s national army and $300 million in military assistance to neighboring Pakistan. The total, $700 million, was a $350 million increase over last year.

While the aid to Pakistan will bolster the Pakistani military engaged in fighting al Qaeda militants along the Afghan-Pakistan border, observers believe nothing will bring more stability to the region than to have a national army in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai outlined plans for a 70,000-strong national army for his country while addressing a donors’ conference in Germany in December 2002.

Mr. Karzai told the donors that he hoped the proposed army would “bring peace and stability to Afghanistan” and would be the “only legal army in the country.”

He also looks forward to a time when the national army would be established and private militias, which control large parts of rural Afghanistan, would be disbanded.

Since then, Mr. Karzai has come a long way toward fulfilling his promise. The most difficult decision for him was to abandon his defense minister and senior vice president, Gen. Mohammed Fahim, when he announced his team for the October elections.

The move caused some observers to predict that Gen. Fahim, who heads the largest private militia in Afghanistan and enjoys the support of the Tajiks, the country’s second largest ethnic group, would make it difficult for Mr. Karzai to win the election.

But contrary to these predictions, he did win the election with an impressive majority, even in Tajik areas.

Now, with assistance from the United States, France and Britain, the Afghan government has been developing the national army Mr. Karzai promised two years ago. The United States is also providing uniforms and basic equipment, while weapons have come from former Soviet bloc countries.

The Afghan government has undertaken a comprehensive plan to disband private militias. It offers cash and vocational training for members of the militias who volunteer to disarm.

At a recent briefing in Kabul, Mr. Karzai said he was confident that with the help of its allies, the Afghan government would raise a 70,000-man army by 2009.

Initially, the training program progressed slowly. By January 2003, just over 1,700 men in five battalions had completed the 10-week training course. But by the middle of this year, the Afghan national army (ANA) had 7,000 soldiers.

In July, the ANA contributed 1,000 soldiers to the U.S.-led Operation Warrior Sweep against the Taliban and al Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan. These were the first major combat operations for the new Afghan army.

In September, the ANA contributed a combat-support battalion, providing engineering, medical and scouting skills to the U.S.-led coalition forces.

Afghan officials said progress was slow because regional warlords were unwilling to disarm, and also because there was not enough international commitment to ensure rapid progress.

They also complained that the CIA continues to fund some local warlords to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda guerrillas hiding in their areas.

Afghan officials hope now that they have a respectable number of soldiers in the army, recruitment will increase as Afghans see the emergence of a national force.

Despite these encouraging developments, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, is still reluctant to join the army. Afghan officials, however, hope that Mr. Karzai’s victory in the election, in which large numbers of Pashtuns voted for the president, will also help.

Mr. Karzai is also a Pashtun, and one of the reasons he distanced himself from Gen. Fahim was to dispel the notion that he depended on the non-Pashtun defense minister for staying in power.

Mr. Karzai had asked other regional commanders to contribute troops to the ANA so that an ethnically balanced force would be created. But two of the most powerful regional warlords — Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north and Ismail Khan in the west — refused to cooperate.

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