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Training the drugged up Afghan Army

By Nick Paton Walsh

Updated on 13 July 2010

The problems of partnering with the Afghan National Army are apparent to Channel 4 News' Nick Paton Walsh, embedded in the hotly contested province of Kandahar with a key unit of US troops performing the surge.

US troops working with the Afghan National Army

The issues witnessed included Afghan troops smoking marijuana whilst out on patrol and setting up ambush sites for the Taliban, and Afghan troops trying to fire mortars at a position that American forces were not able to confirm was clear of their troops or aircraft.

The progress of the American unit, the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne, was also hampered by the late arrival of an Afghan Army unit that was still being trained to work with it at the main base in Kandahar.

More broadly, the American soldiers off camera expressed a lack of trust in their Afghan colleagues, often complained they stole their possessions, and were generally unimpressed with their tactics and operations.

One US soldier, pointing to an Afghan soldier wearing a black cape, said: "You want to hand the country over to him?".

The area we visited surrounds the key town of Sangsar, the home town of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. While commanders have decided not to confront this ideological stronghold for now, the area around it remains rife with insurgent activity.

More from Channel 4 News on Afghanistan:
- Three UK soldiers killed in 'premeditated' attack
- President Karzai calls for UN to cut Taliban black list
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Just south east of here, troops used to call the area the "Heart of Darkness", a moniker that the new US military commanders here - drafted in as part of a surge in troops specially trained to carry out the Pentagon's new counter-insurgency doctrine - dismiss as part of old thinking.

The focus here is on winning back the population, for which Afghan troops are key.

US military officials believe an increasingly ruthless insurgency presents a less attractive option than the medical facilities, governance and, hopefully, heightened security that NATO and Kabul can provide.

There is one snag though. The Obama administration has made no secret of being on the clock, hoping for significant results to this campaign by the end of the year so that troops can begin to come home in July 2011.

Why the Afghan army plan is 'deeply compromised'
The Afghan National Army – or ANA as they’re known here – have been put fore and centre of NATO's new strategy here, writes Nick Paton Walsh in Kandahar.

The thinking is simple: train and equip a loyal and local force that can take over from you as quickly as possible, whilst having the Afghan knowledge to get close to the population and gather intelligence – a similar strategy that helped expedite the "end" of the Iraq war.

That’s the plan. But the reality is deeply compromised.

But commanders on the ground say they feel success is more important than speed and seem unfazed by the loud clock ticking in Washington.

Lt Col Peter Benchoff has spent 42 months in Afghanistan, serving across the country with a variety of different tactics, and here is in charge of the units working in western Zhari.

He said: "As General Petraeus said, the goal is to win and to win for the Afghan people. I think we're on pace to do what we can given the extraordinary size scope and timing of this operation."

"Every population is different and you can never tell what that one thing is that will change that environment. I don't worry about timelines, or anything else. I have got a mission and my mission is not specified in time.  My mission is specified in the effects I am supposed to achieve and an end state," he added.

This assessment, distant from the quick results patter that often dominates hearings on the Hill in Washington, was borne out by the slow experience of the unit working in one outpost, Lokhakhel.

The intense heat made it unenviable to work for much of the day. This, coupled with the small size of the American unit, and the late arrival of the Afghan National Army unit they were trained to partner with in clearing this area, has delayed their operations.

More from Nick Paton Walsh:
- Afghan embed: the military jargon of war in Kandahar
- Afghan embed: surrounded by Taliban territory
- Afghan embed: waiting in a Taliban heartland
- Will trouble at the top slow Afghan progress?

The active insurgency aside - every day the tree line around Lokhakhel is rattled with the sound of gunfire - the local terrain makes progress very difficult.

The fields are often filled with grapevines, forming three foot banks between each row of plants, a potential minefield of booby traps that the American troops have to walk through.

The heat is a fierce enemy - on the one four hour patrol they did in five days, a sixth of their number succumbed to heat exhaustion and needed medical treatment.

Insurgents are using children to creep up undetected on US military bases and throw hand grenades over the walls, US military officials in Kandahar say, revealing a new tactic by the Taliban in this brutal 9 year war. The attacks have so far injured at least two American soldiers.

The Afghan Army unit based at Lokhakhel is less than ideal. Two of their soldiers smoked a marijuana joint whilst out on patrol, next, in fact, to an ambush that their colleagues were preparing for the Taliban.

At another stage, the Americans had to intervene to prevent them firing a mortar round to assist one of their patrols that were under attack, as the Afghans had not checked to ensure there were no American troops or aircraft in the vicinity of the target who might get hit by mistake.

The Afghan troops, though, had a disparaging view of the soft and gentle approach to counter-insurgency now favoured by the Americans - in which their priorities are avoiding civilian casualties and befriending the local population.

First Sergeant Noor Akim said: "When the enemy fights, the Americans are not strong. If I had their equipment, I'd only need a few men." He too is a veteran of this war, having fought for 7 years already, aged just 23.

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