Afghan troops hope, pray for war's end
CHINARI OUTPOST, Afghanistan -- Over Capt. Mohammed Raza's walkie-talkie came an intruder's voice: Faqir Talha, a Taliban fighter telling a comrade, "Everyone is with us. We will have a village meeting. It will be at 3 p.m. and everyone should come."
The plains of Logar Province are vast, but the distance between army and enemy can be small. The village of sun-dried mud huts where Raza suspects the insurgents' meeting is to take place lies less than a mile from Chinari outpost and its complement of 20 Afghan National Army troops.
It's not of much use to the soldiers, however. They have no way of pinpointing where the insurgents are gathering, and even if they did, they lack the firepower to mount an attack.
Two months previously a police post was destroyed by the Taliban, so the army set up a base on a hilltop where the men of the 4th Battalion of 203 Thunder Corps live in two 20-foot-long containers behind bags of rocks and rolls of barbed wire. Riding in Humvees, they patrol a road that snakes through mountain passes and eventually ends in Pakistan, where the insurgents have a haven.
Two days ago they were attacked with rockets but suffered no injuries.
In 2014, when the last U.S. and NATO forces are gone, Afghanistan's defense will fall to troops like these. President Hamid Karzai says his army is ready. The soldiers at Chinari outpost agree but feel seriously unequipped. Twenty of them share a single helmet, which they passed from one to another as they posed for photos.
No one denies the Afghan National Army has an equipment problem. Karzai said he is disturbed by problems such as the helmet shortage. The U.S. is providing the army with new, lighter helmets, but not all the soldiers have them.
"There is definitely a logistics issue within the ANA. ... There is an awful lot of equipment purchased and sitting in warehouses until we get the logistics fixed and get the ANA trained to request the equipment and get it issued," Lt. Col. Timothy M. Stauffer, U.S. Army director of public relations, told the AP late in May.
Still, to an Associated Press reporter and photographer visiting Chinari outpost southeast of Kabul, the Afghan troops sound motivated and patriotic. They tend to dismiss the Taliban rank and file as poor youngsters who join up for the money, but in the next breath say much the same of themselves: Educated to fifth grade at most, or not at all, they enlisted because their families need the money.
The Taliban put religion in the forefront of their endeavors; these soldiers seem to lay more stress on love of country.
Most say they enlisted because they love their country, and because the $250 monthly salaries offer a way out of poverty. They say they aren't afraid of the Taliban and expect the fighting to stop once foreign troops leave. They represent Afghanistan's many and sometimes quarreling ethnic groups -- Tajik, Uzbek, Pashtun and Hazara -- and say ethnicity doesn't define them. They all say they dream of peace and prosperity for their homeland after 30 years of war. They also all say they are disappointed that after 11 years and billions of dollars so little development has taken place, peace has eluded them and corruption is rife among their leaders.
Bushy-bearded Noor Alam is 25 and in his words a bit of a dreamer and a poet. His education ended at fifth grade. He and two brothers enlisted because his family is poor and needs the money.
He recalls scary encounters with the Taliban in his four years in the army, but none as frightening as the one with U.S. Special Forces who he says mistook his base for a Taliban hideout. "Their weapons were so strong. I have had bad experiences with the Taliban, but this was the most frightening for me," he said. "Maybe they apologized to higher-ups, but no one apologized to us."
He says he longs for "peace with all Afghans, living together. We shouldn't fight each other."
Noor Ali thinks he's 21, lost his parents when he was young, never went to school, worked as a laborer. He joined the army 10 months ago and learned basic reading and writing. He dyed his hair flaming red, explaining shyly, "I did this to look good. In my village it is popular."
Mohammed Khan is 21, but his face is weathered and lined. He said his elderly father can no longer work. "We need money and at the same time we serve our country," he said. He enlisted three months ago and hasn't been home yet, but has a cellphone and calls his father often. "It makes me feel better," he says.
He hasn't yet been under fire but said: "I am not afraid of the Taliban. I am only afraid of God."
Khan said the Afghan National Army can defend the country after 2014 -- "I have trust and belief in the ANA" -- and thinks Afghanistan will be better off once the foreign forces are gone "because when they are gone, we will be more able to control our country."
At 23, Sgt. Abdul Bashir is a veteran. One of 15 children, he joined up four years ago "to serve my country." He accuses Iran and Pakistan of interfering in his troubled homeland but thinks Afghanistan will have a better chance at peace after international forces leave. He longs for "a country that is peaceful and can develop and where a soldier all alone can go anywhere in the country without feeling any danger."
Abdul Basir, 22, has just finished basic training, having learned to fight on the run, fire weapons and use stealth. He says he bears no ill will toward the Taliban. "They are human beings and Afghans, but if they shoot at me, I have to defend myself." He said there are Taliban in his northern province of Kunduz but none in his village, where most support the government.
Among the higher ranks, officers are not shy about expressing their worries for Afghanistan's fate once the foreign forces leave. But here at Chinari, the consensus seems to be: We'll manage fine.
The foreigners -- now numbering about 130,000 soldiers, 90,000 of them American -- "have helped us but they have not been able to bring us peace, things have gone from bad to worse," said Basir. "I think I just want them to leave because we should protect our own country."