WASHINGTON - They rode alongside Afghan soldiers in cavalry charges and called in airstrikes from B-52 bombers. Now the Army's elite Green Berets are getting ready to provide another service to Afghanistan: training a national army.
The Green Berets "will lead the effort" and begin working with Afghan recruits "within the next month or so," says one military officer, adding that troops from the international coalition also will assist in training and equipping the new army, which Afghan leaders hope will someday grow to 50,000 soldiers.
The training, according to U.S. officers, military and regional analysts, will be the least difficult part of the plan. The central question is whether Afghanistan can forge an army truly national in loyalty and scope, one that is both geographically and ethnically diverse. If not, longstanding rivalries could erupt in coming years, they say.
Pentagon officials had no immediate information on the cost or duration of the training program, which could be announced as early as Monday by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He has placed a high premium on the creation of an Afghan army, which he calls preferable to a short-term international peacekeeping force for maintaining order in the country.
One defense official expects "small numbers" of U.S. trainers would be sent to provide "very basic, elementary" military instruction.
When there will be sufficient numbers of Afghan army soldiers to maintain order is uncertain, and it could take years to create the hoped-for army of 50,000. The New York Times reported yesterday that the plan says only 4,000 Afghan troops would be trained and equipped by September. And by September 2003, that number would rise to just 12,000.
Besides training, the United States might offer equipment - such as radios and vehicles - for the army, while Russia and the Czech Republic are expected to provide uniforms. The army will continue using Russian arms, including AK-47 rifles, officials say.
"There's not a shortage of weapons" in Afghanistan, notes one officer.
Military officers say they expect the Afghan plan to mirror the combat instruction provided in other countries by the Green Berets.
The Green Berets, some of the military's most highly skilled fighters, are already heavily involved in training foreign militaries. The 120-day instruction provided by a Green Beret Mobile Training Team encompasses everything from small unit tactics and marksmanship to human rights. One 12-member Green Beret "A" Team generally would oversee the training of 500 to 700 soldiers.
The bulk of such training is basic infantry tactics, from planning an ambush to patrolling, and from searching a village to mounting an attack and holding ground, according to Green Beret officers.
An officer familiar with the Afghan plan says that training for officers and noncommissioned officers would be included, although he offers few specifics.
"It will be a mix. You obviously need an officer corps and NCOs to make it happen," he says.
One Pentagon official says the U.S. plans on entering into a long-term military relationship with Afghanistan that will one day include sending students to U.S. service academies.
Haron Amin, the charge d'affaires in the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, says Afghan officials are trying to take a page from their 19th-century king, Amir Sher Ali Khan, who created the first modern army, complete with uniforms, the latest rifles and payment from the central government, not the local village.
"He drew from all across Afghanistan, integrating all ethnic groups," says Amin.
Last week, about 200 warlords from throughout Afghanistan who control about 200,000 soldiers pledged troops to the new army, Amin says.
The selection of recruits will be based on education as well as experience, from fighting against the Soviets to recent battles with the Taliban, he adds.
But a less optimistic officer says ethnic rivalry in the country is an enormous hurdle: "The challenge is to bring all the factions together and build a cohesive unit."
Currently the top jobs in the Afghan Defense Ministry and the officer corps are held by former members of the Northern Alliance, who are ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, although the Pashtun tribe accounts for the largest portion of the population, about 38 percent. Tajiks represent about 25 percent of the population, followed by 19 percent Hazara and 6 percent Uzbek.
Defense Minister Muhammad Fahim, a Tajik, has appointed 38 generals. Thirty-seven of them are Tajiks and one is an Uzbek, says S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia Caucus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
"Basically these guys have done a power grab that we have not responded to," says Starr. "There's got to be a more balanced top leadership. The feeling among Pash-tuns is that they've been marginalized."