NOOR KHIEL, Afghanistan -- Among the huge challenges it faces in taking over from the departing U.S. and NATO armies, Afghanistan's new army is up against the myth that its troops aren't Muslims.
Taliban propaganda has sought to plant the notion that because it works with foreign forces, the Afghan National Army must be a heathen one. So when villagers see his soldiers drop to their knees in mid-patrol and recite the daily prayer, they're surprised, said Lt. Col. Abdul Wakil Warzajy, a battalion commander. "Until they see us praying," he said, "they think that we are like the foreigners -- infidels."
From the Soviet invasion of 1979 through the ensuing civil wars, from the rise of the warlords and their militias to the U.S.-led invasion that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, ordinary Afghans can barely remember having had an army they could call their own.
Once the foreign troops are gone in 2014, Afghanistan's defenses will depend entirely on a force being molded from poorly educated recruits, many of whom complain of feeling underarmed, undertrained and up against an elusive enemy.
In areas where the Taliban is strong, visitors can hear of equipment shortages, rifles that jam and fears that once the U.S. and NATO aircraft are gone, remote and important outposts will become inaccessible and have to close.
And alongside ample evidence that Afghan commanders are working hard to instill discipline and a sense of mission in the new force, there are fears that once the Westerners have left, the country will again splinter into militias ruled by warlords.
At 203 Thunder Corps in eastern Afghanistan's Gardez province, soldiers have to leave their weapons at the gate. That's because renegades among them could attack NATO soldiers -- 26 killed in 19 incidents this year, by AP count -- but also because in an army that reflects the country's mosaic of rival ethnicities, an argument could escalate into a firefight.
Abdul Haleem Noori, a colonel in his 60s who remembers the old Afghan army of the 1980s, said training used to last months. Now it's six weeks.
"Today we have no discipline. If a soldier doesn't want to go somewhere, he doesn't," he said in an interview at the Thunder Corps base. "We should not have been looking for quantity. We should have been looking at the quality of our soldiers but we had to adhere to the timetable of the foreigners and now we are not ready."
U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces, told the AP that the Afghan army and police force were proving increasingly capable in action. About 90 percent of coalition operations now are partnered with Afghan forces, and Afghan forces are in the lead more than 40 percent of the time, he said in an interview July 22.
The army is likely to number around 200,000 by year's end, but that's not enough, said Lt. Yaldash Roasoli, an Afghan soldier standing outside the 203 Thunder Corps firing range. "Even in 30 years we cannot be ready," he said. "If you asked me what a tactical maneuver is, I couldn't tell you. That is the kind of training we have had."
The new force's commando units have been tested in high-profile Taliban attacks in the past year, including one on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and have won high praise from the Afghan government and the U.S. ANA commanders say they are beginning to win the trust of villagers, who prefer the soldiers to police.
But Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, which tracks Afghanistan's self-defense effort, said a decade of training and $35 billion have fallen short of expectations. "It is going to be a difficult process to enable them to be the handoff partner" for the departing Western forces, he said in a telephone interview.
For the Afghan army, just identifying the enemy is a difficult task.
As a force moves into the village of Noor Khiel in eastern Logar province, Warzajy, the battalion commander, is wary. A veteran of the civil wars, a former bodyguard to a fabled warlord, he knows when he's in Taliban country, and this is an area where troops have come under rocket fire and automatic rifles are fired from inside village homes.
For now there are no insurgents in evidence, but as Warzajy points out, when his troops move in, the Taliban move out. "Sometimes they don't even leave. They pick up a shovel and say they're just innocent farmers."
The village is a reminder of Afghanistan's 30-plus years of agony. Some of its houses were bombed out long ago, some during the Soviet occupation. A 25-year-old soldier named Qadratullah slips through a gaping shell hole in a ruined house. "I don't know when it was destroyed," he said. "All I know is, it was one of the wars. Always there has been war in Afghanistan."
The troops have set up a checkpoint. A gray-bearded man in a stopped car is gesticulating wildly. He pleads with Sgt. Maseed Ahmed for his son, a shopkeeper, who he says was picked up after two policemen died in a Taliban attack on a check post. He insists his son has no connection with the Taliban. Ahmed sends him to the battalion headquarters where he can get help to find his son.
"Sometimes the police just take people for money," Ahmed said. "People don't trust the police, but they slowly are beginning to trust that the ANA will help them."
On this operation the soldiers didn't enter any homes. Their job, Ahmed said, was simply "to let the villagers and the Taliban know we are here."
The troops seized a motorcycle festooned with plastic flowers. Ahmed said the Taliban were thought to have used it to transport and plant explosives. A man was arrested along with his son because a second son was believed to belong to the Taliban.
"It sends a message to the rest of the village that family members will be questioned about relatives who join the Taliban," Warzajy said. But he acknowledged such tactics were of limited use. "We might find some villagers who are helpful, but a lot of them are followers of the Taliban, and when we get the Taliban, they are angry with us."
To his own men he came across as tough but caring as he addressed them before they set off on patrol. A soldier who turned up looking a bit slovenly got a tongue-lashing: "You! Don't you know how to hold a weapon? Remember what you have been trained to do." And to the troops in general: "Be careful how you patrol. In every situation you should know what to do. Follow your training. Be proud."
The shortcomings in equipment and training were evident in the chaotic scene on a night when the Afghan troops were supposed to tie up with U.S. Special Forces for an operation but were late to the rendezvous spot and, lacking night-vision equipment, had trouble finding their American colleagues.
The night-vision goggles are a particularly sore point. A report from the U.S. Defense Department in June said 7,157 sets have been issued to the Afghan army and police but noted concerns that several hundred were unaccounted for. The goggles are designated as "sensitive defense articles" that must not fall into enemy hands.
A big worry voiced by analysts tracking the new force's progress is that to build it, the U.S. and NATO embraced militias loyal to anti-Taliban warlords, most of them
divided along ethnic lines. Can the army remain a cohesive peacekeeping body after 2014? "In general, I'm quite pessimistic and think the odds are high of Afghanistan returning to violent civil war," said Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a conflict-management group.
A former senior U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his previous posting, anticipated that the ANA would cede large swathes of territory to the Taliban, pulling back to defend areas considered critical to the government's survival. He said night raids would almost certainly cease.
Martine van Bijlert of the Afghan Analysis Network, a think tank in Kabul, said the Afghanistan National Army was conceived and built in haste.
After 11 years of U.S. and NATO presence, "you could have trained a pretty good officer corps if you had planned for it and had invested in the longer term," she said. "But in practice, much of the efforts were geared to either quickly getting boots on the ground as auxiliary forces to the U.S. and other international troops or to reaching virtual numbers that could be reported on."
The approach of 2014 "has focused minds somewhat," she said, "but there still is a tendency to focus on optimistic progress reports in the face of a very messy reality."
Allen told the AP that American personnel were putting much effort into training the new army to plan missions, execute them and learn from them but said he needed 20 percent more training staff than he has. "It's an ongoing request, and I don't miss an opportunity to emphasize that we really do need these folks," he said.
Many of the Afghan soldiers interviewed voiced their loyalty to their new army. At the same time most said their reason for enlisting was to get a salary and escape poverty, and they tended to assume that the Taliban's recruits joined for the same reason. Opinions of what would happen after the Western forces left were mixed.
"I just want them to leave because we should protect our own country," said Abdul Basir, a soldier from northern Kunduz province.
But Col. Asif Khan Saburi, who is in charge of training new recruits at 203 Thunder Corps, was concerned for the future.
"We need more time," he said. "It is not the time for the forces to go from here."