The guns may be wooden, but learning how to conduct a security patrol is a deadly serious business for soldiers at the Camp Shaheen training school in northern Afghanistan.
The school teaches its recruits key basic skills such as how to search cars for explosives, man checkpoints, frisk suspects and set up guard posts — all routine duties designed to tackle a surge in Taliban violence.
Recent blasts in the capital, Kabul, in particular a suicide attack that killed 15 civilians outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, underline the huge challenge facing Afghan security forces.
Routine procedure should have stopped Tuesday’s car bomber from getting past the “ring of steel” guard posts that surround the city center.
When the US-led NATO combat mission ends next year, Afghan police and soldiers will be in sole charge despite a resilient Taliban insurgency.
At Camp Shaheen, outside the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghan National Army General Ahmadullah shows off how 4,200 soldiers who graduate each year from the military engineering school are taught how to counter such threats.
“The basic security skills are very important for stopping attacks before they happen and for improving public confidence,” Ahmadullah, who only uses one name, told reporters.
“For these jobs, you must concentrate and be professional, and that is one of the things we teach,” Ahmadullah added.
Teams of soldiers use metal-detectors to search for bombs as part of one training exercise, while others learn how to form foot patrols and perform guard duties.
“IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are the main cause of casualties, so this is our biggest focus. It is a very dangerous job, but we have no choice,” Ahmadullah said.
“We teach everything here from IED disposal to carpentry. ISAF [the NATO International Security Assistance Force] has done a lot, but now it is our turn,” he said.
The atmosphere is professional and disciplined, but rifles made of wood are used at the school to minimize the risk of “insider attacks” — when Afghans shoot their NATO trainers.
A week ago, an Afghan soldier shot dead two US soldiers and one US civilian working with the military in the eastern province of Paktika.
Despite the mistrust bred by such killings, foreign trainers at Camp Shaheen say Afghan recruits show potential as they prepare to take on the Taliban alone.
“Many have little, if any, education, but they have excellent practical and hands-on abilities, and we see very good skills in difficult circumstances,” said Chris Snaith, chief instructor for the private Ronco mine clearance and security company.
As he spoke, soldiers worked out how to safely remove a bomb from a car trunk.
“Rather than classroom work, we use real scenarios. The progress is clear and now Afghans are taking over the job of training,” Snaith said. “Our one overwhelming priority is how they can learn to protect people’s lives.”
Many Afghans fear that the international pull-out next year will propel them back into the chaos of the 1992 to 1996 civil war and the harsh rule of the Taliban regime that followed.
However, donor countries have pledged to support Afghanistan in the long term and Germany has built a new US$30 million military training school outside Mazar-i-Sharif, which will house up to 800 cadets at a time.
Afghanistan’s 350,000-strong security forces have already experienced a steep rise in attacks as the NATO-led combat mission winds down.
National police and army casualties have increased by between 15 and 20 percent since 2011, officials say, and the Taliban are predicted to step up attacks through the summer and before elections, due early next year.
One sign of optimism has been the success of rapid-reaction forces when attacks have penetrated Kabul.
Their performance was hailed after the Taliban launched an attack on an International Organization for Migration compound last month in a battle that lasted seven hours, and also when militants fired grenades at Kabul airport on Monday last week.
However, training standards are less impressive outside the capital, and the police retain a reputation for corruption, inefficiency, drug-taking and sexual abuse.
Despite the withdrawal of 100,000 NATO combat troops, who support Afghans in the fight against insurgent groups, the conflict is likely to last for years.
Colonel Max Lindner, the senior NATO mentor at Camp Shaheen, hopes the new military school will cement the lessons that have been learned.
“It will be a unique, modern facility to help Afghans gain skills to improve their security,” he said. “This is the future for their army.”