STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Unidentified Soldiers (Chanting in foreign language)
MONTAGNE: These are Afghan soldiers set to defend their country. Today, we conclude our series on key institutions in Afghanistan with a look at the army - how far these troops have come since the fall of the Taliban, and how far they have to go.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).
MONTAGNE: Firebase Bermel is as remote as it gets in Afghanistan. Looking across the gray, mountainous border, you can see the wild, northwest frontier province of Pakistan, which makes Bermel a front line in the fight against al- Qaida and the Taliban.
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).
MONTAGNE: For the soldiers of the Afghan National Army - or ANA - based here, it's a big day. (APPLAUSE) MONTAGNE: Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak has just helicoptered in to pin medals on the most valiant among them. In a green beret and dark sunglasses, the defense minister cuts a glamorous figure wading through the young soldiers pressing forward to greet him. He pauses just long enough to answer a question.
POST: They were located 2 miles from the Pakistan border.
ABDUL RAHIM WARDAK: Yes.
MONTAGNE: Is this the place that the Afghan army has got to secure eventually - on its own - if Afghanistan is to be protected; this very place?
RAHIM WARDAK: Yeah. We do believe that defending this country is the job of the Afghans. And we have defended this country for 5,000 years, and I'm proud of the ANA today.
MONTAGNE: They can protect this border, at some point?
RAHIM WARDAK: Yes, if we are given the right equipments and the proper training, we can do our - this job better than anybody else.
MONTAGNE: Defense Minister Wardak says many of his men are carrying 30-year-old weapons. Afghan soldiers drive in pickup trucks while the Americans have armored vehicles. They still depend almost entirely on the U.S. and NATO for air support, such as attack helicopters, and NATO troops are still doing most of the fighting. Here at Bermel, the training takes the form of embedded training teams. These are American mentors who live and fight alongside Afghan soldiers.
This national army was started from scratch five years ago. In the early days, soldiers deserted in droves. It's considered good that today, only 1 in 5 is AWOL at any given time. The Afghan army has now grown to 36,000 trained men proving themselves on the battlefield.
BASHIR AHMAD: (Speaking foreign language).
MONTAGNE: Sgt. Maj. Bashid Ahmad shouts out his name as the defense minister affixes a blue and gold medal to his uniform. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Ahmad's first name is Bashir.]
Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking foreign language).
Sgt. Maj. Ahmad: (Speaking foreign language).
MONTAGNE: I serve the people of Afghanistan, he shouts. And then his mentor, Marine Lt. Col. Scott Fosdal, motions the sergeant major over so they can tell the story of the battle that earned Bashid Ahmad his honor.
SCOTT FOSDAL: It was about 7:30 in the morning; we heard a lot of gunfire. Within about five minutes, the ANA had gathered 10 pickup trucks full of soldiers. The sergeant major here was in such a hurry getting people together, he wore sandals throughout the entire battle.
MONTAGNE: So you didn't take time to pull on your boots?
AHMAD: (Through translator) Because we were leaving, I did not have that much time. I just heard the shots, so I woke up. I was already in a hurry, so the soldiers got ready. Even I was in the sandals. I got out, and we ran to support.
FOSDAL: The Afghans have incredible eyes. They were pointing out figures that I couldn't see. And even as they were shooting, they were maneuvering. Not really well-coordinated moving, but they always kept on pushing forward. There is rocks. There is higher cliffs around. You're never really sure where the shots are coming from because of the echoing. So you look for puffs of dirt, and you listen for the crack of the bullet going by. They could have pulled back at anytime. They pushed and pushed and pushed. And when they heard gunfire, they piled in. It was chaotic, but they never slowed down.
MONTAGNE: How important in this battle were the Americans, like the lieutenant colonel here?
AHMAD: (Through translator) He was my combined arm. We were the front lines. As I was moving, he was with me always. And I appreciate Lt. Col. Fosdal, who was with me from beginning up to the end of the fight.
FOSDAL: It is our job to, one, mentor him; and two, in particular, control and work with the coalition aircraft. I had to be up front. My radio wasn't working. I had to wave and get their attention so they would realize where the Afghans were. They were moving so quickly that I was concerned that the helicopters would accidentally engage the Afghans.
MONTAGNE: Let me get this straight. You waved to the helicopters, to make your presence known?
FOSDAL: It's not considered to be the smartest thing to do but at that time, I thought it was more important that I direct their fires. And I felt confident that they wouldn't shoot at anyone before they shot me.
This is a village outside the one-time Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. And here, one battalion of the Afghan National Army had a taste of how the entire army could operate in the future ,during last summer's NATO offensive against the resurgent Taliban. Their commander is Col. Mohammad Fareed Ahmadi.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
MOHAMMAD FAREED AHMADI: In this operation, my battalion had independent area of responsibility conducting offensive operations, defensive operations, security operations, humanitarian assistance helping the people.
MONTAGNE: Col. Fareed, as he's known, sees himself as an officer in a long tradition of professional military. He got his degree in military science in Russia. Two years ago, he studied in America, at the Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kan.
When he took command of a battalion here in Kandahar, Col. Fareed brought with him the idea of winning hearts and minds, only to discover that the Taliban were spreading lies about his troops.
FAREED AHMADI: When I came first here, there was an enemy information operation campaign that the Afghan National Army troops are not practicing Islamic laws.
MONTAGNE: In response, the colonel hatched his own information campaign.
FAREED AHMADI: So I went with all my troops to different mosques, pray five times a day with them, and I did buy some praying mats. People saw and felt that Afghan National Army are Muslims, are Afghans, and the enemy information operation campaign was wrong. So now, if I go to the town from outside, you can see how people running around ANA soldiers, around me, when I start talking to them. It means they are interesting, and we are helpful here.
Unidentified Man #4 (Speaking foreign language)
MONTAGNE: Back at Bermel Firebase, Defense Minister Wardak is reviewing the battle that his soldiers had fought so well. Gathered around him are his top brass and the top uniformed American in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry.
They trace on a map, pinned on the wall, where the enemy came from - the mountains along the border with Pakistan. That is the challenge facing this army: outside fighters pouring into Afghanistan. And it will be years before the army is able to take it on.
Standing in the shade of the building outside, I asked Sgt. Maj. Bashid Ahmad how the battle ended.
In this fight, were there losses to the Afghan National Army?
AHMAD: (Through translator) We lost one of our soldiers. And we are very proud that we killed 22 enemy, and we lost our one soldier - who was devoted for the country.
MONTAGNE: These soldiers say they know they killed 22 of the enemy because they retrieved that many bodies from the battlefield. The Afghan soldiers took them back to a nearby village. One of the dead turned out to be a Turkish fighter infamous for mounting rocket attacks on the base. And the other bodies? Carried back to Pakistan by their families.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: See some of those soldiers based at Bermel, and hear from a translator in Kandahar about the risks he takes, at NPR.org.
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