NATO troops race winter to give Afghan forces a morale boost

Anne CHAON
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An Italian soldier from NATO's Resolute Support Mission (2L) trains Afghan National Army soldiers at the Kabul Military Training centre on the outskirts of Herat

The target is behind a slope, the advance is unprotected: crawl, fire! Italian instructors in western Afghanistan have been using the relatively quiet winter to bolster Afghan troops against the Taliban.

The war-torn country's security forces are being killed in horrific numbers as they grapple with a militant resurgence, raising questions about how much more they can endure.

But under the banner of NATO's Resolute Support mission, Italian forces at Camp Arena in Herat province are racing the coming spring to give their Afghan counterparts a fighting chance.

The Taliban are the main enemy in Herat, which borders southern Helmand, apex of Afghanistan's opium production and most of which is controlled by insurgents. The strategic district of Sangin fell on March 23, another setback underscoring the militants' growing strength.

Criminal gangs masterminding trafficking and smuggling operations to neighbouring Iran are equally feared.

Confidence, says Camp Arena base commander General Claudio Minghetti, is key. "The main message to the soldiers is that they are in much better condition and better equipped than the enemy, which is of paramount importance for their morale."

According to US watchdog SIGAR, casualties among Afghan security forces soared by 35 percent in 2016, with 6,800 soldiers and police killed.

Even the winter, when there is usually a lull in fighting, brought only a measured respite: according to the latest UN report released in early March, the number of clashes increased by a record 30 percent in January 2017 compared to 2016.

One challenge is the shortcomings of the military command. The 207th Brigade stationed in Herat was without a commander for almost two months, until General Ziarat Abed arrived in January after training in Rome and Paris.

General Abed "is on the ground with his men every day, it's new," confirms Colonel Tomaso Capasso, watching the training from the sidelines on Camp Arena's firing range.

"This new generation is not like the previous generation, who spent their time in the office," he adds, watching the men crawl in line.

"They know how to shoot but not fight together. We have to create a team spirit, we have a month to do it."

- Bombs are 'easy' -

Moral support and military counselling are what the Italians offered in Farah, one of the four western provinces assigned to them under Resolute Support, when its harassed governor called for help in tackling the insurgency.

He wanted NATO to conduct a few strikes to drive the insurgents away, the colonel who led the operation told AFP.

"It's easy, but it keeps them in a state of dependency," the colonel, who asked not to be named, said.

Instead, the governor got an Italian deployment of 120 men whose goal was to boost spirits within a week.

"In Farah, we found demoralised troops, very young soldiers, ill-trained, ready to surrender," the Italian colonel said, pointing to the "lack of leadership even at the lower levels" of the Afghan army.

Resolute Support spokesman General Charles Cleveland confirms that a broad movement is under way at all levels that will continue throughout 2017 to "replace the leaders, those who are corrupt and those who didn't properly deliver what was expected last year.

"It's going to take some time, institutional changes can't happen overnight," he said.

For General Minghetti, the lightning Farah operation exemplifies Resolute Support's mandate of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces.

"Just the fact that one is present at their side enabled the Afghans to regain control. With a few tips, they were able to show their abilities," he said.

- Ominous spring -

NATO withdrew its combat forces at the end of 2014, and under Resolute Support there are 11,000 troops -- including 8,400 Americans -- still in the country.

Camp Arena hosts 900 Italian officers and soldiers, including a detachment of the prestigious Bersaglieri, the elite regiment whose helmets are adorned with moiré feathers, a 200-year-old tradition meant to provide shade.

US General John Nicholson, head of Resolute Support, warned last month that he would need "a few thousand" more troops to finally defeat the Taliban and the increasing threat posed by Islamic State.

For Captain "Luca", who could not give his real name as he is part of the Italian special forces, the NDS (Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security) and police must be trained together.

After all, they often find themselves fighting side by side, as during an insurgent assault on a military hospital in Kabul on March 8.

But time is short. The NDS is rarely available -- "they are always mobilised," he says -- and the weather is getting warmer, heralding the arrival of spring and Afghanistan's traditional fighting season.

"As soon as the weather turns to beautiful, it is over," says Luca. "We will lose them."