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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 June 2005, 00:10 GMT 01:10 UK
Toughing it in the Afghan army
By Tom Coghlan
In Kandahar

Afghan army
Morale is low in the ranks of the Afghan army

Dwarfed by the air conditioned sprawl of the nearby US airbase, the barracks of the Afghan National Army's 205th "Atal" (Hero) corps outside Kandahar are, to put it politely, extremely basic.

There is none of the shopping mall consumption that characterises the neighbouring US base. No DVDs, "air con" or golf buggies to transport soldiers to the groaning trolleys of the mess hall.

The ANA soldiers take their water from the non-potable tap that feeds the toilet block; they have not received mineral water or canned drinks for months.

They wash their dishes in the showers, outside which a green pool of sewage festers. Their food comes topped with buzzing clouds of flies.

The Afghan National Army are very much the junior partner in the ugly, forgotten war being fought here in southern Afghanistan; their 3,000 man contribution set against the 18,000-man US force.

But it will not be so forever.

Low morale

By 2007 it is planned that the army will top 70,000 men, allowing the foreign forces to begin to leave.

But this assumes that all goes to plan.

Soldiers say that food and other conditions are poor
And at present all is not well with the Afghan National Army's southern command, which was first deployed last September.

What is clear is that morale is low.

"Everyone wants to run away," said one sergeant. "We cannot tolerate this."

The soldiers' complaints focused largely on the perception that they had not been given a fair deal.

The ANA receive their wages from the US government, and at a starting salary of $75 a month they are comparable or slightly better to those of most civil servants.

But this is before taking into account the risks that the troops in the southern command face.

Many men talked bitterly of a $2 a day bonus they say they were promised for "dangerous operations".

It has never been paid. The Defence Ministry say it will be.

The soldiers also said food and conditions were very poor and deteriorating.

The biggest problem though was how to get their cash wages home to their families when they have to serve up to half a year at a time without leave.

Afghanistan has no banking system.

The soldiers say that their loved ones face starvation.

It is a logistical nightmare with which the Afghan government says it is wrestling.

Casualty rate

Then there is the threat from the Taleban.

Afghan soldier
The army has lost dozens of men to a resurgent Taleban insurgency
Since March, government forces have lost dozens of men to a reinvigorated Taleban insurgency.

The fighting has been hard and without body armour and heavy weaponry.

The ANA inevitably suffer much higher casualties than US troops.

And to this has been added horror.

An ANA patrol was almost wiped out last month and its wounded tortured and executed by the Taleban.

"The Taleban had used knives on them," said Mohammed, one of the patrol's survivors.

"They had no eyes, no noses. Their mouths were destroyed. These were our best friends."

A much repeated, though erroneous, rumour said the men were also castrated.

The incident has compounded already fragile morale, particularly after the discovery that the families of dead soldiers' only receive a single $400 payment for their loss.

"I am afraid of what the Taleban would do to me," said one soldier.

"A boy was crying and asking his commander to go home because he is the only son of his family."

One soldier wondered whether it was right for the ANA to be "helping foreigners to kill Muslims," though others said that achieving "national unity" necessitated the defeat of the Taleban.

Uniting force

And yet, there is much to be admired about the ANA.

Afghan soldier
The soldiers are considered to be disciplined and honest
It is respected by US officers as a generally disciplined and uncorrupted force, unlike the National Police.

Many of the ANA's officers are capable and boast vast combat experience.

"They are some of the bravest soldiers I've seen and I'm proud to be associated with them," said Colonel Tom Wilkinson, a liaison and training officer.

Above all the ANA appears to have succeeded in integrating Afghanistan's multitude of different ethnic groups, all of which were responsible for reciprocal human rights abuses during Afghanistan's long civil war.

"We are just like brothers of the same family," said Sergeant Mohammed Wali from the Tajik north of the country.

The recruitment of the ANA has meticulously followed a policy of maintaining an ethnic balance in units which broadly reflects that found country wide.

As such it remains a popular army with many Afghans, the green bereted soldiers affectionately nicknamed the "Chai Sap" (Green Tea); a gently teasing pun on Isaf, the name of the international stabilisation force.

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