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Afghan Army graduates fifth battalion

by Pfc. Christina Carde

KABUL, Afghanistan (Army News Service, Jan. 9, 2003) - With weapons in hand and uniforms creased and pressed, more than 400 new graduates from the 5th Battalion, Afghan National Army, proudly marched past their officers and dignitaries with a look of fierce pride in their eyes.

The graduation ceremony Jan. 7 was the fifth since September. The ANA has graduated more than 1,750 Afghan soldiers with the help of the U.S. Special Forces and coalition members. Each soldier has completed 10 weeks of basic training, learned the value of teamwork and is ready to defend Afghanistan, according to Michael, a Special Forces soldier.

"The training conducted here is much like basic training back in the states," said Dan, a Special Forces soldier. "The trainees undergo four weeks of individual movement techniques and basic rifle marksmanship, two weeks heavy weapons and two weeks collective training including a final field and live-fire exercise."

Although the training resembles that of the U.S. Army, these soldiers are much different from a typical American soldier, instructors said. They said the backgrounds, culture and lifestyles of the Afghan recruits offered many challenges for the American instructors. The locals had to overcome these challenges also.

"Because of the close-knit bonds bred by their cultures, most of these soldiers already knew each other before they got here," said Dan. "This was a problem at the beginning because many of them are from different tribes and their initial instinct was to quarrel."

"Getting the trainees to cooperate as a team was difficult because they've spent their whole lives fighting each other," said Michael. "However, we tried to show them (that) if two American soldiers of different ethnicities could get along, so could they. After about four weeks they started to come together."

"We are very happy to have formed an army where there are no tribes or ethnicities to set us apart," said Rafillah, squad leader, 3rd Platoon, 3rd Company, 5th Bn., ANA. "We are all one people now with one common goal - to defend Afghanistan."

In addition to rival tribes, the people of Afghanistan have suffered from 23 years of war, invasion, and oppression. This was a factor the trainers had to take into consideration when it came time for weapons training.

"Most American soldiers in basic training have never touched a weapon before, but most of these trainees have prior combat experience," Michael said.

They came here with at least a basic knowledge of how to use a weapon," he explained.

"The trainees range between the ages of 18 and 40 and everyone has seen some aspect of war," said Dan.

"The older soldiers have fought for warlords and local militia, and the younger ones grew up around guns and were taught how to use them at a young age," Dan explained.

Although the trainees had combat experience, they lacked proper guidance and leadership, instructors said. Along with U.S. Army-style training, the special forces introduced a U.S. military leader - the noncommissioned officer.

"Before we took over the training, the only known leaders were officers. In a combat situation, the officer would be the first to die because he always placed himself at the front," said Michael. "To solve this problem, we helped produce NCOs, squad and platoon leaders to handle the soldiers' training and battle techniques. This way the officers could concentrate on the big picture."

Even with the American-style training, traditions and uniforms, the familiar factor of poverty was something the trainees faced on a daily basis.

"The trainees slept in barracks with no heat or running water and used outdoor latrines made from clay and rock," said Michael.

"They were only issued one gortex jacket to keep warm and a pair of jungle boots - which are unauthorized on some posts in the states once the temperatures drop," he added.

With living conditions such as these and daily rigorous training, it may be easy for a soldier to become discouraged and lack motivation. That wasn't the case with these trainees.

"Their motivation and drive to succeed was higher than that of American soldiers I've seen - who live a lot better," said Michael.

After 10 weeks of training, adopting new traditions and making friends with life-long enemies, the newest soldiers of the ANA proudly marched onto the graduation field.

Now these Afghan locals are no longer just trainees but soldiers who have earned respect. In addition, they will earn a salary of $70 U.S. dollars per month until they advance to officers.

At the end of the ceremony, Rafillah had a few words to say to the people of Afghanistan.

"I would like to ask the people of Afghanistan, who are in other countries, to come back home and start their businesses again here to help our economy. The war is over. It's time to rebuild."

The ANA is presently training its sixth battalion and officials said they hope to graduate more than 600 within the next two months.

A "Train the Trainer" program is also being implemented to train Afghan officers and NCOs to completely take over with little U.S. interference. The overall goal is to create an army over 700,000 strong.

Afghan soldiers know their country is depending on them to fight against terrorism so Afghanistan can rebuild itself, said Michael. He said the soldiers consider this as the most important job they can have right now.

(Editor's note: Because of the nature of their work, the full names and units of the special operations' soldiers have been withheld. Pfc. Christina Carde is a member of the 11th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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