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U.S. Military Trainers Teach Afghan Troops To Wield Artillery


NPR sent a reporting team to Afghanistan last month to get a sense of the security situation. It was on that trip that two of our colleagues were killed in a Taliban ambush, photographer David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna, an interpreter and journalist. The NPR team wanted to see what had changed since last year, when Tom Bowman saw Afghan troops open up on Taliban fighters with artillery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here's water. Here's some water.


SIEGEL: The round fell short by nearly a mile. There's been improvement since then. This summer, an Afghan artillery academy will open. And NPR's Tom Bowman spent time last month with U.S. military trainers instructing the Afghan army on the proper use of artillery and mortars.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: This is the final exam for the artillery course held by American military trainers in Kandahar, all under the watchful eye of Major Kevin McCormick.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

MAJOR KEVIN MCCORMICK: They did very well. We had a group up on top of the berm identify an enemy location. They successfully called for fire, and the mortar shot off three rounds that landed on target.

BOWMAN: What used to be there?

MCCORMICK: (Laughter) Used to be some broken down vehicle, but it's gone.

BOWMAN: Was it a Russian vehicle?

MCCORMICK: I don't know if it was Russian or not, but it has disappeared.

BOWMAN: What has not disappeared is a U.S. and ally training effort now going on for about a decade. But the higher-level skills, such as employing effective artillery fire, are only now being taught in a systemic way. Effective artillery fire is vital for the Afghans or any army. You want to be able to hit your enemy with what's called indirect fire before he can hit you. That's why artillery is known as the King of Battle.

MCCORMICK: It takes a long time. It's not a short process. These skills are perishable, so they require continuous training, continuous mastery to be proficient.

BOWMAN: Continuous training - that's what's been going on all year at this vast and flat desert range. It's where Osama bin Laden also trained his fighters. McCormick and the instructors are wrapping up the seventh class of the year for the Afghan army's 205th Corps. Each one is 14 days. And that training can quickly evaporate. That's because the Afghan army is suffering high numbers of dead and wounded in its fight against the Taliban. Many other soldiers simply quit or desert.

MCCORMICK: There's always an influx of new Afghan soldiers coming in, so making sure that the 205th Corps has the capability to sustain their proficiency using artillery, using air assets to employ the capabilities that the Taliban don't have.

BOWMAN: Another challenge for artillery trainers? Large numbers of Afghans are illiterate. And it's not just the regular soldiers, says Afghan Army First Lieutenant Hayatullah Froton.

HAYATULLAH FROTON: And still now we have a lot of officers, a lot of generals - they don't know how to write, how to read. And leadership is very, very important. So I'm young officer. If my brigade commander, he is general, he don't know how to lead us, use us - so what can I do? It's the most unfortunate problem that we have in our military and our country.

BOWMAN: Artillery skills require technical prowess, all the more difficult when you have a limited education. A firing team must be able to calculate the correct coordinates, adjust the weapon's targeting mechanism, choose the correct fuse. So the trainers need some patience. And they're not only Americans. Some come from NATO countries. One of them is Romanian Master Sergeant Mihail Costel. He's learned a few words of Dari to help with the training.

MIHAIL COSTEL: (Laughter) I have the notebook, I have the pen. I'm write everything what - new words and new words I didn't understand.

(Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Foreign language spoken).

COSTEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Sergeant Costel assembles his firing team, four Afghans standing in a line. They pass along a training mortar shell.

What they're using is a water bottle in place of a mortar round. They actually dropped it into the tube.

Then they start all over.

They're doing well?

COSTEL: Yes, very good. Very good. Today, I have more time for rehearsal.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Costel might have time, but the Afghan government does not. The Taliban fighting season is now in full swing, and those artillery skills will be needed in the field. Just a two-hour drive from here, the Taliban is gaining ground. Tom Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.