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Afghan army fights for respect, equipment in south

28 july 2011, 16:15
Afghan commander Maqim Sediqi has spent more than half of his life on battlefields but says that these days he is more preoccupied fighting for respect than firing his gun, AFP reports.

The army captain leads some 100 men battling alongside American forces to keep control of the critical Arghandab Valley in southern Kandahar province, where a surge of US troops last year has seen some successes against a trenchant insurgency.

But this year's traditional summer fighting season comes as thousands of US troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, putting the fledgling force under pressure to show what they can do for themselves.

And while commanders cite gains in the outlying areas of the province, the birthplace of the Taliban, a string of political assassinations in Kandahar city a few kilometres (miles) south has brought fresh fears of an insurgent comeback.

Sediqi said his men were ready to fight: "But we need good equipment, logistics. We have no good weapons and we lack ammunition."

Sediqi, who like many of his men gained his battlefield experience fighting with the US-backed mujahedeen against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s, blamed infighting in the political corridors of Kabul for the lack of support.

"I want them to have pride in their army," he said.

While the US soldiers patrol in regulation desert boots, some of their Afghan counterparts wear sandals out in the streets, and while the US force drives around in heavily-armoured vehicles, the local force has pick-up trucks.

Not all are equipped with the modern American-made M16 rifles, with many still carrying old Russian issue AK-47s.

Sediqi's equipment concerns are echoed by commanders across the country and officials have expressed fears over how the Afghan army and police will be funded after a withdrawal of all foreign combat troops in three years' time.

Still, 50-year-old Sediqi says the greatest threat to his men comes from homemade Taliban bombs, which litter the surrounding fields.

"There has been no face-to-face fighting," he said.

A Pentagon war report in April said that across Afghanistan, three-quarters of army units were judged "effective" when backed by an adviser or assistance from coalition troops, but no single army unit could yet operate independently.

Sediqi's men are under the tight lead of their American comrades and he says he hopes their military trainers stay on longer to help them. But there are some successes -- the Afghan National Army and police set up check points along a highway alone, and on one recent mission they recovered a heavy weapon buried by insurgents.

"My men are willing. They are being trained by the Americans. With the Americans we believe we can defeat them," said Sediqi, although he later added: "I really can't say whether they can be defeated or not."

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Simmering, commander of the 1st Battalion, 67 Armored Regiment leading coalition efforts in the area, teaches his men to praise the Afghan soldiers for any small accomplishments to build their morale.

"What we're trying to do is create a force that is capable of standing on its own," Simmering told his men after awarding certificates of recognition to Afghan troops who recovered the arms cache. "Right now, they're not."

But although talk of the transition from foreign to Afghan forces is high, after seven parts of the country were transferred in ceremonies last week, no such handover is likely in Kandahar soon.

The murder of the mayor of Kandahar on Wednesday, two weeks after the president's half-brother -- the province's key powerbroker -- was killed, underscores the ongoing volatility of the region, and some are pessimistic.

"The bottom line is, once we're out of here, this whole place is going to be taken over again by the Taliban," said a military defence contractor and ex-army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, who had done three previous tours here.

"You just can't teach people to take care of their own country if they are less willing to do so."

By Jason Gutierrez

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