The following article ran as part of an eight-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 6-24, 2004.
On a hot and dusty plain just south of Kabul, as trucks hauling howitzers lumber into sight, Sgt. Greg Pearce ticks off some of the reasons why this is the most unusual teaching experience he's ever had.
Nearly half the Afghan army recruits he is helping train are functionally illiterate. Even more lack basic skills in math. They're training on obsolete Soviet-era equipment, with no ammunition. Most of them have no experience even driving a car. Pearce is working alongside French Canadian and Mongolian trainers, dealing with Afghan troops from different ethnic and language groups who don't much get along.
And because U.S. and Afghan officials are determined to show progress in building an Afghan national army, Pearce and his colleagues have been told to compress the normal 12-week course into eight.
"I tell you what," says Pearce. "When I get home, I can teach anything."
A member of the 123rd Field Artillery unit of the Illinois National Guard, Pearce has been in Afghanistan since October as part of a training team that also includes three other guardsmen from Southern Illinois and Missouri.
It's a long way from Pearce's hometown of Flora, Ill., about 30 miles south of Effingham. There, his civilian job is working the factory line at a Sherwin-Williams plant. He says he jumped at the chance to come to Afghanistan after nearly a year on hold, first being told that he might be sent to Iraq instead and then being assigned to transportation and force-protection duties back home that didn't make use of his field artillery skills.
U.S. and international officials had earlier projected that as many as 30,000 Afghan soldiers would be trained by now. The actual number is barely 10,000; those involved say that reaching the goal of 70,000 would probably take five to seven years.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Leslie, a Canadian who served as deputy commander of the NATO- led international security force until earlier this year, said many of the Afghans who had passed through the army training course had done well.
"The trouble is that the numbers aren't growing quickly enough," he said, "and until recently, the attrition rate was almost as great as the recruitment rate."
At the Afghan army training base just south of Kabul, the challenges are readily apparent -- but not to Capt. Abdullah Nouri, battery commander for this trainee unit, who says he's very happy with the level of instruction and believes the training has gone well.
He leaves after an hour. The instructors say Nouri's attendance has been better than several other commanders, who rarely show at all. The trainees are frequent no-shows as well, disappearing for days at a time, particularly after receiving their monthly $70 pay.
Field artillery is one of the more challenging military disciplines. It requires precise compass readings, gun settings and elaborate coordination between fire direction teams, fire support and the cannon crewmen themselves.
The training for all of that, in the Afghan context, is challenging indeed. Sgt. David Reeves of Belleville, a member of the same National Guard unit as Pearce, is responsible back home for information technology equipment for the Mascoutah school system. Here in Afghanistan, he's scrambling to teach precision artillery-aiming techniques to Afghan trainees who lack basic arithmetic and literacy skills.
"If they see a reason for doing something, they'll stay on task, but only for a few minutes," he said. "It's like a kid with ADD (attention deficit disorder). The amazing thing is, they can do a lot with nothing. For them a pair of pliers is a full set of tools."
The trainers have also confronted the ethnic tension that afflicts Afghanistan as a whole, with Tajiks squaring off against Pashtuns and Uzbeks against Hazaris.
"We've had soldiers shoot at each other," Reeves said, recalling one night earlier this year when "two of our guys just emptied out their AK-47 assault rifles at one another." Luckily no one was hit.
On Saturday, Reeves was confronted by trainee Sayeed Nawab, unhappy because he had been replaced as gunner on his unit. The gunner's job is the most challenging of any in the field unit; the angle of fire has to be set, matched with data from the forward observers.
In his defense, Nawab said that the Mongolian trainer overseeing his work was putting too much pressure on him.
"The pressure you feel from that Mongolian is nothing compared to what you'll have when people are firing at you," Reeves tells Nawab, "and when you know that some of your guys are dying down field."
The back and forth continues. Sgt. David Myers finally breaks it off. "We're done with this discussion," he says. "He's too slow. He's being replaced."
Myers lives in Chillicothe, Mo., where he works as inventory control supervisor at a glove factory. He was deployed here as a member of the 128th Field Artillery unit of the Missouri National Guard. So was Maj. Todd Patton, a full-time member of the Guard headquarters office in Jefferson City whose family moves this summer from Maryville, Mo., to Columbia, Mo.
Patton says the trainers are doing their best to meet demands for a stepped-up training pace.
"When they told us we had eight weeks to train these guys, I said, 'No way,'" Patton recalled. "especially training on Soviet equipment and working with Mongolians." For training purposes, Patton has access to only 10 howitzers, the Afghan army's entire supply, he said, thanks to the refusal of warlord commanders around the country to turn in what are believed to be many more, in better condition, that are kept in reserve.
Patton chuckles when told that U.S. officials tout the large number of heavy weaponry that the private militia forces have already turned in, much of it now housed in a compound outside Kabul. Patton, who has seen it, describes the armory as mostly junk.
"The system's working," he laughs. "They're turning in all their guns. Sure. I'd say it's more like they're turning in their yard art.
"Look at these beaten-up D-30s (howitzers) we've got," he adds. "People who have been out and about say they've seen D-30s at checkpoints, held by the militias, that look right out of the showroom, brand new."
Pearce says the situation is similar with ammunition. "We can't get it to train with, but it's out there."
Patton acknowledges that the inability to obtain ammunition for live-fire training is a big drawback, in preparing the trainees for battlefield conditions. So is the fact that the two units trained so far have gone into service without access to any equipment of their own.
"The training's very perishable," Patton concedes. "Those guys are going to have to come back for at least two or three weeks of training if they ever get equipment."
Patton, counting the minutes as the Afghans set six howitzers up in a line, pulls out a plug of Red Man chewing tobacco. As the truck drivers round the final bend, they race to the set-up point, ignoring instructions to arrive at precisely the same moment.
"They're very competitive; there's no doubt of that," he said. "The challenge is training them to work as a team."
Until last month, the Missourians and Illinoisans lived in an eight-man tent. Now they've got a wooden barracks on the edge of Camp Julien, base camp for the Canadians who play a lead role in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
As for entertainment, "We play a lot of spades," Pearce said. Patton has a projector that he's attached to a portable DVD player, and most nights the team gathers in the cramped space between the bunks to watch a movie on the wall.
"We've been here since Oct. 1," Pearce said, adding that current plans call for the Missouri and Illinois trainers to be home by the first of July.
"Every day's a good day," he said, "because it's one day off the calendar."