GARDEZ, Afghanistan (AP) — They say their M16s are dust-prone antiques. Their boots fall apart after a couple of months, they complain, and many of their helmets are cracked and patched. Yet they set out on patrol.
They are the men of the Afghan National Army, the critical part of the huge machine being built to protect Afghanistan's security after the NATO alliance is gone in less than three years.
With Afghanistan topping the agenda at a gathering of NATO leaders in Chicago on Sunday and Monday, an Associated Press reporter and photographer traveling with Afghan army forces in Logar and Paktia provinces are hearing a mix of messages from dozens of officers and enlisted men.
The foreign forces are leaving too soon, the men say. Why then are attacks by Afghan soldiers on NATO forces increasing, killing 35 last year and 22 so far this year? Because the Afghans feel disrespected, the soldiers say. Handing out inferior equipment is disrespectful; burning Qurans, however accidental, is disrespectful; urinating on dead bodies, even Taliban, as video that emerged in January showed U.S. troops doing, is disrespectful.
Washington spent more than $20 billion in 2010-2011 on training and equipping a 352,000 strong army and police force — one of the costliest projects ever undertaken by the Pentagon.
Yet the footsoldiers don't have night-vision goggles to go after the Taliban under cover of darkness.
At the rock-strewn firing range of the 203 Thunder Corps in Paktia province, Sgt. Said Aga recalled his M16 jamming in the middle of a fierce firefight with the Taliban, and grimaced as his young charges aired their gripes about the Vietnam-era firearm.
"The Americans have really much better equipment than us," he said. "Our vehicles and weapons are very weak compared to theirs."
A soldier named Abdul Karim said he'd prefer a 30-year-old Russian-made Kalashnikov to an M16. The Americans "are giving us old weapons and try to make them look new with polish and paint. We don't want their throwaways," he said.
In Kabul, Lt. Col. Timothy M. Stauffer, U. S. Army Director, Public Affairs, rejected the complaints about aging weapons, saying the Afghans get basically the same firearms that U.S. soldiers have. "I am not sure their complaints are valid," he said. "The equipment they are asking for and are being issued is sufficient to meet the current threat."
Most American troops in Afghanistan carry the M4, a shorter version of the M16. Both models have been criticized by some in the military for jamming in harsh conditions and requiring greater maintenance. The Kalashnikov is known as an easier-upkeep, all-conditions weapon, fueling its popularity in the developing world.
At the firing range, the complaints flew thick and fast. Col. Abdul Haleem Noori grabbed a young recruit's foot to show a gash in the heel of his boot.
"It's only two months old and it is falling apart, and we are told it is supposed to last one year," he said. The footwear was made by a manufacturer under contract to the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
Even the 3-year-old army band bemoans their equipment, including soldered trumpets dating back to the 1970s.
The conversation with Aga, the firing range instructor, shifted from poor equipment to the disturbingly high number of so-called "green-on-blue" attacks, a U.S. military term for Afghan soldiers killing their NATO counterparts.
Aga, a squat man with piercing brown eyes, gave off a strange mix of resentment, envy and appreciation. He didn't want the international soldiers to leave. "We still need them to bring peace," he said.
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