Is the Afghan Army ready for prime time?

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Audio Transcript:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned the bombings in Kabul which killed up to nine Indians, a Frenchman and an Italian as a terrorist attack. The Taliban said they carried out the attacks. The assault comes as NATO and Afghan forces continue ?Operation Moshtarak' to combat the Taliban in the south of the country. Reporter Ben Gilbert looks at the battle readiness of the Afghan troops.

MARCO WERMAN: The attack in Kabul today underscores that security remains a top concern in Afghanistan and that's with thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in the country. It's not clear when Afghan security forces will be ready to go it alone. Ben Gilbert recently spent time with an Afghan Army unit and its Canadian trainers in southern Afghanistan.

BEN GILBERT: It's a rainy, cold day in southern Afghanistan and four trucks filled with Afghan National Army soldiers leave the Afghan Army's side, forward operating base Wilson. The soldiers carry American M-16 rifles. They look and sound confident.

MALE VOICE 1: We don't need anything.

MALE VOICE 2: You don't need anything, huh? You've got everything? You've got enough soldiers, enough food, enough supplies, everything?

MALE VOICE 1: Yeah. All of them, they're complete.

GILBERT: The troops are on their way to patrol a stretch of road in the Taliban infested Zari district near Kandahar. Twenty-one Afghan Army soldiers have been killed from this unit, the First Battalion, First Regiment of the 205th Afghan National Army Corps since May of this year. And although the soldiers in this battalion don't lack bravery or bravado, they actually do need quite a lot. Earlier today another unit of Afghan soldiers returned to base from a field mission because their tent was flooded. The soldiers were cold, miserable and wet. Captain Terry Maccormac, a Canadian military mentor here, says the Afghan soldiers haven't learned how to plan ahead for simple things like rain.

CAPTAIN TERRY MACCORMAC: As soon as something bad happens like rain or whatever, they stop all their operations. Well you can't do that because it just means that you've just given up that piece of terrain that you just took over.

GILBERT: Captain Maccormac is one of 42 Canadian troops who form an operational mentor/liaison team, or OMLT. Maccormac says it's challenging. Ninety percent of the soldiers in the Afghan Army can't read or write. That makes teaching basic soldiering skills like reading a map extremely difficult. Many are just learning how to aim their rifles and troop retention is difficult. Because of a lack of discipline, Maccormac and his team never know how many Afghans are here in the troops barracks every day. Some leave and come back. Some leave and never return. But the good news is there's no shortage of young men looking for work. Many soldiers are like 25-year-old Faisal Mohammad who says he joined the Army two years ago for the money, $200.00 a month. "There is no work in my city so I came to the Army to serve my country and bring good security to Afghanistan", he says. Also like Faisal, most soldiers here are from Afghanistan's north, which is a different tribal, ethnic and language group from the Pashtun regions in the south. The idea is to find soldiers who can't be threatened by the Taliban, though there is a risk of tribal conflicts. But one of the Afghan sergeants, named Nasser, says it's not an issue. "We don't have any problem with Pashtun people when we are speaking with them", Nasser says. "We are all Afghans." Major Alexander Watson, the mentor team's commander, says the common culture is a plus. He says the Afghan Army is much better at dealing with locals than the international troops. They can search a house better and spot Taliban more easily. Still, the Afghan commanders here remain deeply dependent on the international coalition's troops for almost everything from hospitals and medical evacuation to artillery and air support. Another problem is that 30 years of war in Afghanistan has created a culture where officers look for out themselves rather than their troops. Major Watson uses the Afghan battalion's commander as an example.

MAJOR ALEXANDER WATSON: He's not stupid. I mean, he's been abandoned before. He fought on the side of the Soviets; they have a much longer view. For them the war just keeps going. And whether or not the United States and Canada are here is really less relevant to them than we would like to think.

GILBERT: Watson says the Afghan Army needs to create a professional officer corps. That means developing leadership skills so the commanders take care of their men just as well as themselves. Watson says some back home may be skeptical that the Afghan Army will succeed, but he says it's come a long way in a short period of time from zero to 60,000 troops in just five years.

WATSON: To build a professional army overnight is kind of akin to suggesting you're going to build a law profession overnight. If there are no lawyers in Afghanistan and you said suddenly, okay, we need a legal system, start tomorrow. That would be equally, if not more difficult. The suggestion that we can build a professional officer corps in Afghanistan that quickly, I think is a) unrealistic and b) also quite unfair.

GILBERT: This spring's troop surge is expected to shift the training of the Army into high gear, with thousands of U.S. troops destined to arrive in country to focus on mentoring the Army even more. For The World, I'm Ben Gilbert.