Fight is on to hone Afghan security forces
The rocket-propelled grenade explodes in a room full of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, fired not by Taliban insurgents but by one of their own comrades. ( dpa )
It's the third negligent discharge in less than a week by local security forces working with foreign troops in the Maywand district of Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province. Eight men are injured in the accident, one of them mortally.
"If we tell them to be careful with their weapons they just say they grew up with war and guns and know what they're doing," said a British Gurkha soldier, concerned about the casual bravado of the Afghan soldiers as they handle their rifles and grenade launchers.
Yet Afghanistan's security increasingly depends on these trigger- happy young men.
NATO remains committed to its deployment in the country, but pressure is growing in donor countries for faster returns on billions of dollars spent on building up the Afghan army and police force since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
"We've got to get smart or we'll be here forever, or public support (at home) will wane for us in Afghanistan and people will say 'that's enough money'," said Sergeant Major Andy Bolt, a US police marshal and reservist who runs training programmes for 2,500 members of the Afghan National Police (ANP).
Generally, the whole force of 70,000 officers lags far behind the ANA in its development and is beset with corruption and lack of battle readiness in an environment where police are equally likely to clash with the enemy.
That Britain's elite SAS force is also involved in the training reflects the importance attached to the work, which has been shared by several countries in recent years.
At a conference on Afghanistan security held in Switzerland in 2002, donor countries agreed to support the rebuilding of the security forces and established a "five pillars" approach.
The US took the lead role developing the ANA while the ANP went to Germany's care. The pillar of the justice system was entrusted to Italy, counter-narcotics to Britain, and disarmament of illegal armed groups to Japan.
Some of these areas are new to Afghanistan, while in matters of regular soldiering it's a matter of refining skills that the Afghans acquired over three decades of conflict.
"They know how to fight, many are warriors who fought the Taliban for years, others were mujahideen who fought the Soviets," said Major Corey Frederickson, an ANA trainer from the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry.
"Discipline is very good but it's based on the Russian system where the officers make all the decisions and there is very little initiative at the lower level."
While morale is at rock-bottom in many police units, the army shows growing confidence. In addition to receiving expert tuition, its around 57,000 soldiers have been steadily kitted out with surplus US army uniforms, body armour and modern vehicles, even if they don't have the firepower they would wish for.
"The Afghan army is a new army and has started from scratch," said Colonel Shirin Shah Kohbandy, commander of the 1st Brigade, 205 Infantry Corps, which is based in Kandahar province.
"Each day there is improvement, we now have enough experienced officers but unfortunately we don't have enough equipment - we need an air force, heavy weapons, tanks, artillery," he said.
Although the ANA can hope to achieve its growth targets, there are fears that some regional branches of the police have reached a critical state of dilapidation and criminalization. Wages are only around 100 US dollars a month and are often not paid for several months.
The entire 200-man police force in the Maywand district was recently replaced after it emerged that many officers, driven by their own poverty, were terrorising the locals and extorting money from shopkeepers and drivers on the country's main highway.
As well as raising the level of competence, re-establishing confidence in the police here and elsewhere in Afghanistan will be a crucial factor in wresting communities from the Taliban's orbit.
"It doesn't matter how many battles the infantry wins, if the police don't take good care of the citizens, they'll lose faith in the Afghan government," said Bolt.