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04-21-06, 12:28 PM
Afghans focus on target
April 21,2006

The mortar shot skyward with a burst of sound and smoke, and the Afghan soldiers craned their necks up to score a glimpse of the flying shell. But the projectile was already lost in flight, and the six soldiers stared down range, past the burned out shells of tanks and trucks, and waited for the impact.

It eventually hit with a dust-producing thud, and the soldiers began chattering with each other in Pashto, their native language.

“How far?” they asked through a translator.

“About 875 meters,” replied Camp Geiger instructor Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Gregory Griffin.

The ability to land an explosive round on a spot hundreds of meters away may be commonplace to U.S. Marines, but to soldiers in Afghanistan’s National Army, it’s an illustration of

the gap between the military prowess of both countries.

That’s exactly the reason the soldiers came to the United States on a two-week tour of East Coast military installations, including a Thursday stop at Camp Lejeune, where they visited training sites aboard Camp Geiger. Accompanied by the Marines who are helping them train in Afghanistan, the soldiers caught a glimpse of the Corps’ training and its facilities in hopes of taking some ideas back to use on their own fledgling fighting force.

“This trip is an opportunity to give them eyes on the training we go through so they can take this information back with them,” said Maj. Rick Seagrist, with the Marine embedded training team working with the Afghan soldiers’ unit, the 3rd Kandak (the Afghan equivalent of a battalion.) “These guys are the junior leaders of the future of Afghanistan.”

Lt. Col. Shamsurahaman Shams, the 3rd Kandak commander, said through a translator that Camp Lejeune was an excellent base and that he enjoys the professional relationship he has with the Marines.

“It’s fun for us to learn from your military,” he said. “We have a friendly relationship with the Marine Corps guys. We’ve got pretty good coordination. We use their expertise and experience to help us when we have a problem. We get their advice.”

Shams and his men — two other officers and three senior enlisted — spent the day watching mortar units conduct advanced training and tested their marksmanship skills at a simulation training facility. While the Afghans do not use the same weapons as the Marines, the tactics and methods employed are what the soldiers should glean from their trip, Seagrist said.

Adopting those tactics is another matter.

Americans like Seagrist — there are 17 Marines and sailors working in Afghanistan with the 3rd Kandak — face a tough challenge in helping the Afghan’s reach some form of military cohesion and competence.

“It’s challenging sometimes,” he said. “We were banging our heads against the wall when we first got there. You’re talking with people who don’t understand you. The best way I can describe working with the Kandak is it’s like a marriage: You build respect and trust and go from there.”

Afghanistan is still struggling to build a government and a military following the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001 by U.S., Afghan and other coalition forces. The country’s president, Hamed Karzai, set a goal of a 70,000-strong army by 2009.

Yet there are formidable hurdles to overcome. Their weapons are old — mostly Cold Warera Soviet and Chinese models — and their training facilities limited. On top of that, Afghanistan must build its army while fighting a motley group of terrorists and Taliban forces that seek to plunge the country into new depths of chaos.

But in the more than five months that he has been working with the 3rd Kandak near the Pakistan border, Seagrist said he has seen progress. They are well-equipped to handle small-unit patrols and company-sized operations, he said, but still need work at the battalion level and above.

He said he has no qualms fighting alongside Afghan soldiers.

“I’m pretty confident in the individual’s skill as a soldier,” he said. “I’ve served beside them on patrol, and I’m happy to do it. I trust them with my life. Time will tell on the big picture.”

While a group of six Afghan soldiers came for a similar tour last year, this year’s visit marks the first time enlisted Afghan soldiers have observed Marine Corps training in the States.

1st Sgt. Mahfooz Parwani said he appreciates the effort the Marines put in to help train him and his comrades.

“I appreciate the Marines in Afghanistan because they are working with us to build our army,” he said. “They are nice people and friendly to us, and they always support us.”

And Parwani recognized the challenges ahead and said he hopes that one day the Afghan soldiers can train with as much sophistication as the Marines.

“The quality of training is very good there, but (soldiers) get less amounts of training (than Marines),” he said. “We lack facilities. Hopefully, based on opportunities we will have, the army will progress soon.”