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Afghan National Army Key to Afghan Nationalism

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

GARDEZ, Afghanistan, Sept. 7, 2003 – The Afghan National Army is one key to extending the interim government's influence throughout Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met a platoon of that army during a visit to the Provincial Reconstruction Team headquarters here today.

A group of U.S. Army reservists and guardsmen is furthering the training the platoon has received. "They are doing very well," said Army Maj. Mike Whetstone, commander of the effort. Whetstone's group of six soldiers is attached to the 10th Mountain Division.

Officials said the Afghan army has about 5,000 soldiers. It reports to the interim government headed by Hamid Karzai. It is one of the few "national" efforts in Afghanistan. The idea is that the army will take over security functions from the militias each provincial governor maintains. Those militias owe loyalty not to the government, but to the governor. Other militias simply report to a warlord, coalition officials said.

Though some of the militias are trained, others resemble gangs of thugs, and the idea is for those militias ultimately to be replaced by security forces loyal to the government, officials in Kabul explained.

U.S. Special Forces soldiers trained the U.S. reserve component group in Gardez at the Afghan army camp near Kabul.

Most Afghans had military experience before joining the force, Whetstone said. "What they have now is tactical knowledge and the discipline to know when to use that knowledge," Whetstone said. The group has been working with the platoon for three months.

Though some ethnic groups in Afghanistan do not get along well, the platoon in Gardez has soldiers from every region, group and tribe in Afghanistan.

"Gardez is a Pashtun area," Whetstone said. "We can't tell the difference (among the ethnic groups), but they can. And it's good for the people here to see the Tajiks, and Uzbeks and Pashtuns working together in the army."

Under the guidance of U.S. Special Forces soldiers, the platoon has participated in combat operations. The trainers do not accompany the platoon into combat, but the special operators give the Afghans a review of their performance. "It's not ideal," Whetstone said. "But it works."

And the people of Gardez are happy to see the soldiers. "I went out into a local town and this one older man comes up to me and grabs my hand," Capt. Steve Poland, another trainer said. "I was a bit worried, because it is still a dangerous place. But he placed my hand up to his forehead and said 'Thank you for being here.' And he went up and did the same thing for the ANA commander."

When people realize the new soldiers in town are government forces and are not there to take advantage of them, they truly embrace the troops, said a Special Forces member at Gardez. "It does send the right message," he noted.

Senior defense officials said they will speed up training more units for the Afghan National Army. Afghans and coalition officials alike expressed hope that this will speed the process of national government control.

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