Jessica: This is the way out of Afghanistan. Training the Afghan National Army is a key part of the U.S. exit strategy. So these soldiers are learning how to shoot, search compounds and carry out missions against the Taliban.
Captain Daniel Petronzio: Trying to get them set so at some point we can pull back and not have so many Americans here.
Jessica: Captain Daniel Petronzio is one of the Marines working alongside the Afghan soldiers.
Captain Petronzio: They’re doing a good job. We’re not there, but if we keep pushing forward we will be.
Jessica: The clock is ticking. The Obama administration plans to turn the war over to Afghan forces by 2014. The administation also wants to train an addiitional 100,000 troops, creating an army of more than a quarter million. But big obstacles stand in the way — some as basic as the inability to read and write.
Captain Petronzio: This is one tool the Marines use to train Afghan soldiers, the majority of whom cannot read or write. This is a model of the surrounding area. We are right there and each block represents a village.
Jessica: Visual tools, like this, and translators are how the Marines communicate with the soldiers. Out in the field, the Marines say it can be frustrating.
Captain Petronzio: We know you know how to do this and the safest way to do this, but take this Afghan soldier who we’ve been training all of three months and throw him in front and he’s going to tell you where to go.
I apologize out here much more than in the U.S. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. That’s my fault. I’ll make sure you’re in front’, even though it’s our equipment, our money.
Jessica: But during informal settings like this one, the Marines say they often learn valubale information.
Captain Petronzio: You hate to say it, but I walk in town and I can’t tell the difference between the farmer and a guy who is a high level Taliban informant. You can’t tell the difference, but they do. So, you can’t operate out here without the Afghan assistance.
Jessica: Still the relationships can only go so far.
Captain Petronzio: One thing you have to remember about being an advisor is that you don’t trust anyone. I’ll go on patrol with them and they have a fully loaded weapon but I always have a Marine behind me — eye in back of my head.
Jessica: That is because some of these soldiers used to be part of the enemy that U.S. forces are fighting.
Do you worry that they might go back to the Taliban?
Captain Petronzio: I worry that a few of them are Taliban right now.
Jessica: It doens’t help that every few months, a new battalion of Marines takes over.
Afghan soldier: It’s difficult getting used to them because they’re here for seven months and they rotate out, getting familiar with one and then you miss your friends and have to get reacquainted. Start all over.
Jessica: But the big question is will the army be able to operate without U.S. forces? Many people have doubts. Just last week, the general in charge of training mission admitted not one Afghan battalion is able to fight without U.S. help.
One in four Afghan soldiers quit after three years and, according to NATO, the number of soldiers deserting the army is on the rise.
Captain Petronzio: In the first six months of this year alone, more than 24,000 Afghan soldiers have walked off the job.
Jessica: This, despite the fact that so far, the U.S. has spent more than $27 billion training the Afghan troops. And some estimate maintaining the army will cost $6 billion a year.
But Captain Petronzio says it is worth it.
Captain Petronzio: People try to make it sound like this is my generations Vietnam. It’s absolutely not. Half these guys on my team volunteered specifically to come out here to do this job. When people say, ‘Why are we here? We’re not world’s police,’ you’re correct. We’re not the world’s police, but we are making it better for someone else.
Jessica: Where do you want to see Afghanistan in, say, ten years?
Captain Petronzio: Two years ago, Taliban walking in public, and now they’re out of sight.
Jessica: Right now, he’s hoping that everyone can walk freely without weapons, without fear.