Armed men aren't hard to find in Kabul. The serious guy down the hall from me carries an M-16 as he pads around the hotel. I suspect his requests for laundry service are met with alacrity. He seems to be one of the private military contractors you hear so much about these days, but I haven't struck up a conversation. I was looking for a different kind of armed man—soldiers from the emerging Afghan National Army.
In a country where local commanders still have sizable militia forces with heavy weaponry, the central government won't survive long if it can't field a reliable national force. (There is already much derisory comment about Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reliance on the Americans for his personal security.) With the international peacekeeping force largely corralled in Kabul, the foreign military advisers are racing against time and mounting insecurity to train and deploy an Afghan force that can fill the vacuum.
Money is apparently no object. I visited a new ANA garrison on Wednesday with a couple of Canadian officers who are helping train the force. The Canadians were agog at the cash the Americans are pumping into the project—from salaries for the soldiers to new facilities and uniforms. The paint is still fresh on at least a dozen new buildings in the camp, and Pakistani construction crews are feverishly laying cement for several more. The ANA troops are outfitted in new, American-style fatigues, and everyone seems to have an AK-47. Andrew Wilder of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit—Kabul's in-house think tank—confirms that the ANA is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy security picture. But it is still embryonic; the army has only three operational brigades totaling about 15,000 men.
The enthusiasm of the Afghan soldiers and their international sponsors is infectious. Last week, I spoke with some new recruits at an open-air market next to the parched Kabul River. They were so eager to chat that my interpreter and I abruptly found ourselves in the middle of a jostling scrum of soldiers and other curious onlookers. The recruits outdid each other in proclaiming their enthusiasm for the army, and they told me that the army is bringing together recruits from all over the country and instilling them with a sense of national identity.
It's not just new recruits who feel the buzz. On Wednesday morning, I sat down with Canadian Maj. Brian Hynes in a bustling ISAF canteen before we headed out to watch some training exercises. A veteran of several peacekeeping missions (and a dead ringer for David Caruso), Hynes describes his current job as the best he has had. He's not oblivious to the obstacles. He gave a frank account of the way warlords have tried to siphon off freshly trained ANA soldiers when they return home for leave. When the international donors got wise to the practice, they responded by docking the commanders' stipends a set amount for each lost recruit. Attrition has declined, though Hynes estimates that it is probably still around 5 percent a month.
Later, at the ANA garrison, Hynes greeted his counterpart, the exceedingly polite Maj. Mohammed Essaq, who offered us tea in his spotless new office (complete with a portrait of Karzai). I asked Essaq whether he had served in one of the militias before joining the army. He demurred, saying softly that he had been in Pakistan. As I walked over to watch the brigade conduct urban warfare drills, Maj. Hynes pulled me aside and told me that while young soldiers brag openly about service in the militias, more senior officers like Essaq often shy away from discussing their militia service for fear it will make them appear like mercenaries.
A few days before meeting Essaq, I had discussed the challenges of stitching together an army with two senior ANA officers at a nearly empty Turkish restaurant. Over soup and soda, the men painted a mostly sunny picture of the army's development. Both were professional soldiers trained in the days when the Soviets were the ones shaping the army. One of the men had been a jet pilot, and during the course of the meal it came out that he had made bombing runs over my interpreter's home province. Nobody seemed fazed by the revelation.
The officers grumbled good-naturedly about the glut of generals in the new army. Commanders coming from the militia forces often demand a high rank—even if their military skills don't merit it. My lunch companions complained about the arrogance of the former militia fighters who had joined the army, and they questioned the loyalty of some new ANA members. "Physically, they're in the ANA, but mentally they may not be." When I asked the fresh-faced recruits in the market whether their loyalties were to Karzai or to their former militia commanders, they cheerily told me there was no conflict between them. Everyone was on the same side.
If that was ever true, it may not be so for long. Afghanistan is entering a turbulent election phase, and the jostling between Karzai and the regional warlords has already started. A few weeks ago, Karzai knocked Defense Minister (and powerful militia commander) Mohammed Qasim Fahim off his presidential ticket. In Kabul, the NATO peacekeeping force tensed up, fearing a confrontation between the two. That kind of uncertainty will probably become commonplace in the coming weeks, and the ANA may have to pick sides. Essaq's battalion is heading into the breach; it will deploy to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to provide election security. The boyish enthusiasm of Afghanistan's new army will be tested soon.