Heavy weapons training hits the target
It's a snowy day in Kabul up on top of the Darulaman mountains in the west of the city. An Afghan National Army captain crouches on the ground next to a British Army Brigadier, who guides his hand as he aims a 60mm mortar. Tapping him on the shoulder, Capt Khavani Noori grins at the Brigadier, before a popping sound indicates the dummy mortar has been launched off into the hills. Both stare out, cupping hands over their eyes against the white glare, as the mortar hits its target.
These brand new mortars have been donated by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan National Army because of their manoeuvrability in terrain just like this. Previously the army had been using 82mm mortars, a legacy of the Soviet era. They were bigger, less accurate and didn't have a trigger.
“This weapon is totally different. These new mortars are lightweight and we can move them quickly during battle,” Capt Noori tells NATO Channel during a demonstration, visited by ISAF commanders from the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A).
It's an example of the international community providing the right weapon for the job. Typically the ranges at which the Afghan National Army engages the enemy are well below two kilometres. So having a smaller calibre mortar with an effective range of between 75and 1300 metres is ideal.
Capt Noori is a graduate of a two week training course given by Afghan instructors on the new 60mm mortars. Lt Gen Daniel Bolger, Commander of NTM-A, says that this is essential to make sure training is sustainable.
“We focus very closely on training the Afghan trainers. So we don't deliver a lot of the instruction ourselves. What we do is teach the instructors how to do it,” explains Lt Gen Bolger.
Putting it into practice
This is being put into practice about two miles to the east, at the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC). At its armour school, an Afghan National Army officer instructs a class of young soldiers on brand new ‘mobile force strike vehicles’ donated by the US government. The large armoured vehicles will form the backbone of the Afghan National Army's armour capability.
Today, these vehicles cruise up and down the slopes of the KMTC's training field in a live exercise. Some come equipped with anti-landmine rollers at the front, smoke grenades and M16 rifles firing blanks. It's a scene that would fit any modern military training facility. However, there are additional challenges faced by Afghan training officers that you might not find in a western military, according to Col Abdul Qudous Ghani, commander of the armour school.
“The majority of the drivers are illiterate, but they still drive well. The commander and the gunner are educated soldiers, like lieutenants, but they also learn a lot during training. In the end, all of them will use the vehicles properly.”
Foundations for the future
Across the board, Afghan Army training officers express optimism about fighting the insurgency with their current weaponry. However, some in the Afghan military and government have expressed concerns about future capabilities, where more sophisticated weapons might be needed to protect their borders.
“In the future, as they become a more effective and multi-capable army, they'll probably want to introduce things like tanks and heavy artillery,” says Lt Gen Bolger. “But right now, that doesn't match the threat.”
Future expansion is not ruled out by NTM-A's leaders, however. Both the mortars and the mobile strike force vehicles are foundations for an evolving Afghan army that ISAF say will grow, both in terms of size and capability.