, NISHAGAM, Apr 19 – While US troops busily prepare mortar shells for an assault on a nearby mountain, their counterparts in the Afghan army lounge on the grass as a soldier dances.
The men in full body armour from Charlie Troop, 3rd Platoon 1st Infantry Division, glance over bemused as the Afghan soldier — wearing no bullet proof helmet — twirls gracefully to folk music blaring from a mobile phone.
Building up and training the fledgling Afghan army is a key exit strategy for the United States and other Western powers keen to quell a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan that last year reached its deadliest yet.
But nearly eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghan troops still lack equipment to deal with the increasingly sophisticated tactics of the resurgent fundamentalist movement, and are grappling with the basics.
"We don’t have things to protect ourselves like rain jackets or warm coats — we only have one pair of shoes," says 20-year-old soldier Ghazni from Jalalabad, who goes by one name only, pointing to his tattered boots.
While coalition soldiers patrol dangerous roads in high-tech new armoured vehicles known as M-RAPS, Afghan troops perch on the back of a pick-up truck, vulnerable to bomb attacks and small-arms ambushes.
"The vehicles we are using are not that strong, they can’t stop bullets, we need heavy vehicles like the Americans," says 26-year-old Sergeant Rais Khan.
At Nishagam District Centre in northeast Kunar province, Sergeant Toorkhan Rashid Zui gestures to the filthy latrines and basic sleeping conditions, saying he wants the coalition forces to help.
"We need to make a place for us to stay here and live here, and also bathrooms, toilets, showers," he says.
"An important problem is cell phone (signals), we cannot contact our family members. We have one satellite phone, but no credit."
Despite pleas for more assistance, he says, no answer has come from his commanding officer or their foreign mentors.
"They ignored it," Zui says.
Washington hopes that by sending in 4,000 extra training personnel this year and increasing the Afghan army from 80,000 to about 134,000 by 2012, local security forces can eventually lead efforts to quell the Taliban.
But that is not enough, says the commander of Afghanistan’s second brigade Lieutenant Colonel Sher Mohammad Sher, especially as it takes up to three years to get recruits to the level needed to operate without foreign supervision.
"Until we can support ourselves, the coalition forces should help us, especially the United States," he says.
A programme launched in late 2007 aims to replace the army’s AK-47s with US-made rifles and machine guns, and supply the Afghan forces with Humvees, the main vehicle used by the US military.
But the switch brings challenges.
"This is an army, a group of people where they have been shooting AK-47s since the beginning of time," said Major Jim Hickman, a US mentor to the Afghan army based at Camp Bostick in northern Kunar.
At Bostick, recruits from all over the country — including former taxi drivers, shopkeepers and farmers — complain that while the foreign troops in the barracks next door have Internet, they have to use public pay phones.
"I’ve been here for four months and all my pay from the government I spend on calling my family," says Ghazni.
Hickman hails the progress that troops are making in this isolated mountainous terrain, but says training and supplying the army needs patience.
"Everything we do takes time. The whole immediate gratification thing — ‘We want it, we want it now’ — doesn’t work like that," he says. "Especially when you are in an area like this."