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Afghan Army Increases to 20,000 Troops


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Afghan Army Increases to 20,000 Troops

Sun Feb 27, 8:53 AM ET  World - AP

By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan - The number of troops in Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s new army topped 20,000 Sunday, as the United States steps up training of a force that is supposed to relieve Americans on the front lines against Taliban-led militants.

The 853 soldiers and officers of the 31st Battalion graduated Sunday morning in a joyful ceremony in the capital, Kabul. The Afghan National Army, or ANA, now numbers 20,694 and has another 3,000-4,000 soldiers in training.

"You young people must encourage others to follow you into the Afghan National Army," Gen. Abdullah, a senior Defense Ministry official who goes by one name, told the soldiers. "You are entrusted with the Afghan nation and must go like men to every corner of the country."

A new, multiethnic army is a key provision of international accords on rebuilding a strong Afghan government. The accords were signed in December 2001 after U.S. forces ousted the Taliban for harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden (news - web sites).

On Sunday, the newest battalion marched for their commanders and trainers on a dusty parade ground in eastern Kabul.

When formalities ended, many soldiers performed a traditional Afghan dance while others festooned their Afghan trainers with plastic and paper flowers and posed for photos in groups drawn from across the country's deep ethnic divides.

France helps train the senior officers, Britain the noncommissioned officers and the United States the regular soldiers. Instructors from other countries, including Romania and Mongolia, train troops on their mainly Soviet-era tanks and artillery.

Several of the new soldiers said they had no fear of joining the battle against insurgents along the rugged Pakistan border.

The Afghan force is intended to replace armed factions tarnished by their role in Afghanistan's brutal civil wars and suspected of involvement in the country's heroin trade. More than 42,000 militiamen have been disarmed under a U.N. program.

The force also is expected to take a growing role in the battle against militants in the country's south and east, often in conjunction with the 17,000-strong U.S. force focused on remote provinces along the Pakistan border.

Recruitment to the new army was initially dogged by desertions and poor pay.

But conditions have improved, and U.S. officials say six battalions will train simultaneously starting next month, up from two at the start of last year, and the force is supposed to reach its full strength of 70,000 by the end of next year.

Lt. Col. Mohammed Zahir, commander of the newest battalion, said his men included ethnic Pashtuns, Hazaras and Tajiks â ” all ready after 11 weeks of basic training "to fight against al-Qaida, Taliban or any other enemy, foreign or internal."

"This fighting or interference is imposed from beyond our borders and we are ready to meet it head-on," he said.

The U.S. military this month doubled the number of its soldiers embedded with the new army, extending the training effort into the field and letting ANA units call in U.S. airstrikes if they get into trouble.

U.S. military engineers also are building modern barracks around the country to house the new units, many of which are supposed to be in place in time for parliamentary elections expected in midyear. Several battalions already are deployed near the border.

U.S. Col. Robert Jones, a senior trainer, said Zahir's unit could be facing combat within two weeks after undergoing maneuvers to hone skills from mortar targeting to engineering and signaling.

Morale, he said, was extremely high.

"They'll be very disappointed if they don't get an opportunity to go down range and go into a combat zone. They understand what they're trying to do is push bad people out of their country and they're very committed to that," Jones said.



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Keep working lads.  As much as I'm looking forward to my upcoming tour, I'd love to see the Afgans sort out their own mess...they seemed to do a pretty good job against the Soviets! :salute: