KABUL — Several hundred Afghan National Army recruits marched 22 miles Tuesday on an undulating path at the foot of the towering Hindu Kush mountains, toting M-16 rifles and carrying 20-pound packs on their backs.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Cousan, a Louisiana native, marched every step of the way with them, but he carried only an iPod. Cousan was more consultant than drill sergeant. He was there to watch, and when necessary to give advice through an interpreter.
The effort to enlarge and train the Afghan army is critical to the Obama administration's plan to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida, pacify much of Afghanistan and begin to withdraw at least some U.S. forces in 2011. Success, however, is far from guaranteed: The Afghan military remains plagued by corruption, ethnic rivalries and illiteracy, and by its almost complete dependence on American logistical and intelligence support.
At the Kabul Military Training Center, about 1,400 recruits enter every two weeks to begin an eight-week training regimen, the equivalent of the U.S. Army's boot camp. The Afghan army ostensibly runs the center, but the U.S. and its NATO partners send several "mentors" to each training exercise.
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The 22,000-acre training center was built by the Soviets, taken over by the U.S.-backed mujahedeen who ousted them in 1989 and then by the Taliban who ousted the mujahedeen.
A junkyard with hundreds of destroyed Soviet tanks sits in the middle of the camp, but the new Afghan army is being built and trained to fight Islamist insurgents, not to stop an invasion by a neighboring superpower.
"We have recognized that the military we're building here... is different from a Cold War military," said Col. Dennis Brown of the Georgia National Guard's 48th Brigade, who oversees much of the training.
Afghan soldiers are schooled in urban combat, in storming the home of a suspected insurgent and in reacting to the improvised explosive devices that are the insurgents' deadliest weapons.