Over Captain 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 3pm and everyone should come.”
The plains of Logar Province are vast, but the distance between army and enemy can be small. The village of mud huts where Raza suspects the insurgents’ meeting is to take place lies barely a kilometer from Chinari Outpost and its complement of 20 Afghan National Army troops. However, it is not much use to the soldiers. They have no way of locating where the insurgents are gathering — and even if they did — they lack the firepower to attack.
Two months previously a police post was destroyed by the Taliban, so the army set up a hilltop base where the men of the 4th Battalion of 203 Thunder Corps live in two 6m-long containers behind barbed wire and bags of rocks. 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 US and NATO forces are gone, Afghanistan’s defense will fall to troops like these. Afghan President Hamid Karzai says his army is ready. The soldiers at Chinari Outpost agree, but feel seriously ill-equipped. Twenty of them share a single helmet, which they passed from one to another as they posed for photographs.
No one denies the ANA has an equipment problem. Karzai says he is disturbed by problems such as the helmet shortage. The US 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,” Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Stauffer, US Army director of public relations, told the Associated Press late last month.
Still, to an AP reporter and photographer visiting the facility 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 cash, but in the next breath say much the same of themselves: Educated to 5th grade at most, they enlisted because their families need money.
The Taliban put religion in the forefront of their endeavors; these soldiers seem to lay more stress on patriotic feelings.
Most say they enlisted because they love their country and because the US$250 monthly salaries offer a way out of poverty. They say they are not 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 does not 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-years-old 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.