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On the frontline with Afghanistan's army

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 01 April 2010

Afghan troops are preparing to spearhead a Nato operation to clear the Taliban from its Kandahar birthplace.  So who are the soldiers who make up the Afghan Army.  Film-maker John D McHugh finds out for Channel 4 News.

Afghan National Army soldiers - taken by John D McHugh

Nato military chiefs are set to change their strategy in the battle to retake control of the Taliban heartland Kandahar in the next phase of fighting in Southern Afghanistan.  

Operation Omid which is the Pashto word for hope will be the first Nato operation led by the Afghan National Army.  

On a visit to the Taliban former stronghold of Marja in Helmand Province, Michael Mullen, Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff said:  "This is an operation that will be done by Afghan leadership.  But it is not Marja, we understand that it is much bigger challenge."

Film-maker and photojournalist John D McHugh has been to meet the men of the Afghan National Army for Channel 4 News as they train to take on the Taliban insurgents.

The latest subtle change in military language in Afghanistan has seen the introduction of the phrase, and concept, of "partnering."

Partnering replaces mentoring, and mentoring replaces training, and training replaces, well…. I can't remember anymore.

But basically it all relates to the coalition's ongoing efforts to build an Afghan army, and then hand over responsibility for security to them.

So, in an effort to understand partnering, I spent two weeks living at Camp Alamo, a small coalition base surrounded on all sides by a much larger Afghan National Army (ANA) base (and apparently named by the Americans with no hint of irony).

I was embedded with the UKLTT, or United Kingdom Leadership Training Team. Led by the straight talking Lieutenant Colonel Nick Ilic, the team is responsible for managing the production line that turns out NCOs and Officers. Or should I say churns out.

As Ilic's boss, General Leavy told me, "What we are doing here is producing an army on an industrial scale." And he is absolutely right. Or, as one officer more colourfully described it to me, "It's like that scene in Lord of the Rings, where the Orcs are pulled from the ground itself."

Kabul Military Training Centre, or KMTC, is a huge base. Even so, it is currently bursting at the seams, with the Afghan recruits forced to eat their meals in alternating shifts, such is the overcrowding.

I was shown one dormitory, with approximately 300 bunk-beds lined up in it, with barely enough space to tuck blankets between them. Looking up, I noticed a basketball frame and net. I realized that this was in fact the gymnasium, pressed into service as accommodation rather than recreation. I shuddered to think how quickly any illness would spread through the cavernous room.

President Obama's man in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has decided that 174,600 Afghan soldiers are exactly the right amount to defeat the Taliban. Putting aside the incredulous questions about what equation spat out that number, it is what is now being produced. And that production site in KMTC.

Watching the multitude march this way and that, I was mesmerized. The sight of so many men in uniform, the most I have ever seen in one place, conjured images of England on the cusp of D-Day. Whether this horde can produce the same outcome is yet to be seen.

'"It's like that scene in Lord of the Rings, where the Orcs are pulled from the ground itself."'

However, I hadn't just travelled here to look. I have heard and read many, many statements about the Afghan National Army, and of course lots of them are nonsense.

Yes, having worked extensively in Afghanistan since early 2006, I have seen useless Afghan soldiers. Worse, I have encountered dangerous ones. I remember the time one of them accidentally fired his weapon right beside my head. Luckily it was pointing upwards at the time.

On more than one occasion, I have stumbled on ANA soldiers smoking cannabis. And once, as I raised my camera instinctively to capture the scene, one of the soldiers raised his own chosen tool, an AK-47, and pointed it at my chest. I didn't shoot, and neither did he.

So in fact, I believe I would have more cause than most to belligerently discredit the Afghan army, to undermine their every actions, and based on my experiences, brand them idiots.

But there are idiots in every army. The reality is that I have also encountered very bright, and very brave, Afghan soldiers. They may not come up to western military standards, but as British Lt. Col. Ilic told me, "We are training these guys to fight the Taliban, not for ceremonial duties at Buckingham Palace."

And this is something that I think needs to be remembered. Too often have I seen or read news reports that present the ANA in a slapstick comedy role. "They are clowns, they are fools, they are minefield clearing tools" seems to be the refrain.

So, instead of presenting them as two dimensional characters in the background of a film, I spoke to as many as possible, between their training, and their marching, and their shooting.

And of course, they are real people. Some were funny, some were cold, some were very eloquent, and some, well, some were probably not served well by the translators.

Janaqa Ranjman is 23, and comes from Nuristan. He has already been wounded once, in a suicide bombing. But he doesn't fear the Taliban. He told me that the Taliban's reliance on IEDs proves that they cannot face the Afghan National Army in a straight-up fight.

'Then he blindsided me, with a direct message to the UK. "Mr. Gordon Brown," Shah said, "don't get tired of Afghanistan."'

Ahmad Shah, 25, comes from Bamiyan. He was very insistent that I understand that not all Afghan are against women's rights. "My province has a female Governor" he told me proudly, "and there is peace there."

He also wanted to talk about the development in Afghanistan, about the new schools, and universities. And he said, "I have a complaint about the media. They only show Afghanistan as war, war, war. They don't show the peace in our country."

He went on the talk to me about the problems that India faced when it got independence, and how Gandhi, a man of peace, brought the factions together. He believed that peace is coming to Afghanistan. He said "it will take more time, maybe not one day or one year, but it will come."

And then he blindsided me, with a direct message to the UK. "Mr Gordon Brown," Shah said, "don't get tired of Afghanistan."

Lt. Col. Ilic also spoke of his worry about the British people getting tired of Afghanistan. But his fears were not for the soldiers and young officers going into battle, but the lack of quality leaders at the very top of the army. His frustrations revolved around corruption, nepotism, and the fact that the wrong people were in charge of the ANA.

"Unless they invest properly in their instructor cadre, and in the right leadership, we are going to be here for a longer period of time than anyone envisaged."

Alexander the Great, who himself faced some of the toughest fighting of his many campaigns at the hands of the Afghans' ancestors, is reputed to have said, "I do not fear an army of lions led by sheep, but I am afraid of an army of sheep led by lions."

The ANA suffers from many ills, at times ill-disciplined, ill-equipped, and ill-trained, but surely the worst of all is to be ill-led.

By John D McHugh

Photojournalist and Film-maker

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