The sign over the front gate at the main training centre for the Afghan army reads – “Unity starts here.” The future of Afghanistan may depend on whether this slogan can be turned into something more than a pious hope, in a country that has traditionally been deeply divided along tribal and regional lines.
Nato’s exit strategy depends on an eventual handover over to the Afghan army. So a massive training effort is underway. The aim is to increase the size of the Afghan army from 82,000 to 132,000 troops over the next two years. But Ali Ahmad, the Soviet-trained Afghan general in charge of the training centre, admits that the army is having huge trouble recruiting in the heartlands of the Taliban rebellion – Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south. Potential recruits are either too hostile or too scared to join up.
As a result, the ethnic balance of the new Afghan army is liable to get out of whack. Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north of the country will be seriously over-represented and the largest and most rebellious ethnic group, the Pashtuns, will be seriously under-represented. It sounds more like a a formula for civil war than national unity.
General Ahmad’s American colleagues were rather alarmed by his revelations and one attempted to suggest that there had been a “translation problem”. But the general was happy to elaborate. He told the story of a recruit from Kandahar, whose family had come all the way to Kabul to appeal to their son to pull out of the army – for fear that they would become the victims of Taliban reprisals. There is a great deal of frenetic activity at the training centre – a vast 22,000 acre-site, which is 15-minutes drive outside Kabul. It all looks very impressive. There are soldiers out on the range, firing their new American M-16 rifles – replacing that old Afghan favourite the AK-47. There are loads of others square-bashing. In the classrooms, other are learning computer skills and English. The group I saw were being taught naval vocabulary, which seemed a slightly odd choice for landlocked Afghanistan – but never mind.
The Nato trainers live in their own little compound on the training centre. They have called it Camp Alamo. It is not the most auspiscious of names. As I recall, there were no survivors at the Alamo.
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