- - Tuesday, October 28, 2014

NEAR KABUL, Afghanistan — At the School of Excellence, the “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire comes in rapid bursts and lasts several seconds. Another volley of gunfire resonates from the dusty hills in the distance.

It is here, a remote garrison a few miles down the road from the once-glorious Darul Aman Palace south of Afghanistan’s capital, where a new generation of elite Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers are training to become special forces operatives and commandos just as the war-torn country tries to turn a critical corner.

As most NATO troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, the ANA soon will be fully responsible for the country’s security. Army officials say they are determined.

“We’ve grown up,” said Lt. Col. Ghulam Hazrat, who oversees all special forces training at the School of Excellence. “We now need to stand on our own feet.”

But challenges persist. The results of this year’s presidential election — the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history — were marred and slowed by fraud accusations amid stepped-up Taliban attacks in advance of NATO’s withdrawal. What’s more, Army Green Beret commandos have reported that many of Afghanistan’s regular soldiers are more likely to run and hide than stand and fight.

The School of Excellence, with the help of the Americans over the past seven years, has been trying to counter that situation. It trains the best soldiers in advanced military techniques to better equip the overall Afghan National Security Forces — the nation’s combined army and police units.

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So far 11,500 of the Afghan army’s 195,000 soldiers have joined the ranks of the red beret commandos, and about 1,000 have been promoted to special forces.

All of the training is modeled after U.S. Special Forces, and had been taught by American commandos themselves until their Afghan counterparts took over as instructors in recent years. Americans still serve as advisers at the school.

Col. Hazrat says his troops need the American trainers to stay in Afghanistan for five to 10 more years as well as more heavy weapons to fight the Taliban, which has increased attacks on security forces. On Oct. 13, a Taliban ambush in Sar-i-Pul province northwest of Kabul killed 12 soldiers and two police officers.

The Sept. 30 signing of the long-delayed bilateral security agreement by Afghanistan’s new government and the U.S. will quell some of the ANA’s worries about the immediate future without a large-scale American military presence. The agreement will allow 9,800 U.S. troops to remain in the country until the end of 2015. About 24,000 U.S. troops currently are in the country.

The military prognosis is largely in the hands of the army and Afghan National Police at this point, say analysts, who note that the future is full of questions.

“Can the regular Afghan National Army hold what they now have, and if they suffer some major reverse, or continue taking causalities on the scale that they’ve been taking them for the last two years, is there any risk that the organization will someday collapse?” said Stephen Biddle, a senior defense analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations.

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About 2,330 Afghan soldiers died in combat between March 2012 and May 2014, making 2013 the deadliest for Afghan forces since the beginning of the war in 2001.

The ANA is still considered a capable and powerful force, but the true test of their strength will be seen in the coming year: Will they be able to maintain control of areas cleared of the Taliban by the U.S. and other foreign troops?

“They’re probably not going to collapse, but neither is the Taliban,” Mr. Biddle said. “The [security forces] can probably hold more or less what they now have as long as somebody keeps paying the bills. Then the question becomes how long can the bills keep getting paid.”

So far the U.S. has appropriated more than $61.8 billion to support the Afghan National Security Forces, according to the latest report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the independent agency created by Congress to monitor the nearly $104 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds in Afghanistan.

The security agreement also ensures continued financial assistance to Afghanistan. In the same SIGAR report to Congress, the Pentagon requested $4.11 billion for fiscal 2015 to sustain the ANSF, whose assigned force strength was 340,293 as of May. The DOD’s goal is to reach 352,000 by the end of fiscal 2015.

Afghan military officials say it’s not enough, adding that the army has full capability to fight the insurgency throughout the country but still needs support from coalition partners to fill in gaps in training and in air defense support.

“Our army is still young, and we are growing,” said Brig. Gen. Sayed Abdul Karim, commander of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command at the School of Excellence.

“As we are growing, we need, of course, more heavy weapons, like artillery or ground-to-ground rockets, ground-to-air [rockets] and those types of weapons and capability,” Gen. Karim said. “Then our air force will have more capability.”

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