Good-natured and gung-ho in his crisp green battle fatigues, Kramatullah Nazari looks every bit the ideal recruit. One of 415 Afghan army soldiers who graduated from basic training Tuesday, the 23-year-old says he's eager to take on Al Qaeda and help bring peace to his country.
But recruits like Nazari are hardly plentiful -- and that's of increasing concern to the Afghan government and the U.S. military, which is bankrolling and helping train the new national force as a cornerstone of this struggling country's stability.
Some among the U.S. contingent here fear that the fledgling army will fail to become a credible force by mid-2004, when nationwide elections and a constitutional loya jirga, or grand council, are scheduled. Such credibility is considered critical to defend against any domestic malcontents who might emerge to violently contest the election results or a new set of laws.
Given Afghanistan's violent past, international military experts take that scenario seriously.
"The idea is, you would like to have a capable force in Kabul to serve as a deterrent for a spoiler displeased with the results of the election, someone who might seek to plunge the country back into civil war at the barrel of a gun," said one Western government official with many years of experience in Afghanistan.
Simple math indicates that such an army is years away.
Nazari's class, the fifth to graduate since U.S. and French soldiers began training recruits in May, brought the Afghan army's troop total to about 1,800. That means chances are slim that the army will have the desired 8,000 to 9,000 well-trained troops in place for next year's elections.
Unlike most armies, the new Afghan force was conceived primarily not as a defensive shield against foreign invaders but as an internal force to impose order -- and someday replace the estimated 300,000 armed militia members who still rule much of Afghanistan under the command of dozens of local commanders or warlords.
The militias and their leaders are holdovers from 23 years of warfare that devastated Afghanistan until a U.S.-led international coalition swept the hard-line Islamic Taliban regime from power here in November 2001.
The militias -- nominally overseen by the Defense Ministry but in many areas of the country still quasi-independent forces -- represent the biggest challenge to the government of President Hamid Karzai. A credible national army would be his biggest tool.
"Truthfully, the Afghan army is about getting the warlords under control so that they aren't disruptive to the national effort," said one retired military expert in Washington.
Many reasons have been advanced for the disappointingly low troop levels in the new Afghan army. U.S. sources blame the warlords, who they say are reluctant to give up men such as Nazari.
The Afghan Defense Ministry, headed by former warlord Mohammed Qassim Fahim, says it's the international military trainers who are lagging in forming classes. Enough potential recruits are available now to form 10 battalions, Defense Ministry spokesman Meer Jan said Monday.
Low pay and ethnic tensions are given as reasons for the share of would-be soldiers who quit during training -- which is running as high as 25%.
The thinness in the Afghan army ranks has both the U.S. and Afghan governments considering new approaches. Recently, the salary of soldiers who have completed their training was raised from $50 a month to $70 to make the military more attractive.
But Afghan army Col. Sahim Borez said that $70 is still not enough for the troops.
"People leave because salaries are too low. It's not enough for a soldier with family members to support," Borez said. "The food and housing conditions are fine, but the pay is too low."
Battalion commanders receive $300 a month.
A special commission will meet soon to consider new recruiting methods and incentives. Sources say the U.S. has so far shied away from becoming directly involved in recruiting, insisting that's a job for the Afghans. The quality of recruits who do enlist and stick it out through basic training is high, U.S. and French trainers say.
"Most know something of military matters, and they learn very, very quickly," said French Col. Fabian Germain, who is in charge of training the sixth recruit battalion, numbering about 600 soldiers and set to graduate in February.
But Germain said that rivalries between recruits from Tajik and Pushtun tribes are real, causing many to leave training before graduation. Orders by the U.S. and French trainers are translated into Dari and Pashto, the languages of the two largest ethnic groups.
Although the U.S. military declined to disclose the dropout rate of Afghan troops during training, one spokesman said it has come down "dramatically" since half of the first recruit group walked out before the graduation ceremony last June. Nowadays, basic training classes typically start out with 600 recruits, and about 150 drop out, sources say.
U.S. Army spokesman Col. Roger King said recruitment has involved overcoming certain cultural issues, because in the past, village or town councils would have the authority over whether a local youth could join the local militia.
"They acted like the draft board," King said.
King also said he believes the Afghan army could reach 8,500 troops by the end of this year. Training is accelerating, with battalions expected to graduate every five weeks, up from an average of one battalion every six to seven weeks so far.
But there's more to creating a true fighting force than basic training.
"To have an 8,500-man force by summer of 2004, you pretty much need them all through basic training in November 2003, and then you begin the process of training them to maneuver and fight together as battalions and brigades," said the Western official. "Just having 8,500 individuals who have never fought together doesn't give you strong military power."
At the graduation ceremony Tuesday, Defense Minister Fahim counseled patience, saying the army will grow "graduation by graduation, one after another, just as drop by drop makes the river. All the rivers you see don't start at once from one point, but they are formed by small portions of water gradually."
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.