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Afghan Diary

THE United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) rightly feels that with so many Afghan and NATO soldiers, Afghan police, private security guards and UN security staff walking around armed to the teeth, UN employees should be aware of basic security precautions related to use of these weapons.

With this in mind, the UN regularly takes civilian staff to a firing range outside of Kabul for a hands-on weapons security seminar and demonstration.

UNAMA Photographic Peace Ambassador Tim Page went to update his weapons-handling skills, and he invited me along for the ride.

We rounded up at the UN Operations Centre in Afghanistan (UNOCA) about 5 kilometre east of the capital on the Jalalabad Road, the main highway that goes all the way to the Khyber Pass and on into Pakistan.

The road is lined with warehouses, parking lots for heavy equipment, cement barrier storage areas and a ramshackle array of shops, most of which are made from old shipping containers. Seven years of continuous foreign military and development aid has witnessed an enormous amount of money going into construction projects, with dozens of Afghan companies profiting handsomely from being involved.

UNOCA is a huge compound where most UN agencies with operations in Afghanistan have offices, storage facilities, and housing. There’s also a store, a canteen and a recreation centre with a bar that sells booze by the case on a take-home basis.

The camp is surrounded by 6-metre high Hesco barriers, the 21st century equivalent of sand bags – steel wire mesh lined with heavy burlap is formed into cylinders and then filled with sand. Stacked pyramid-style, they form anti-blast security barriers for anything. This is just a guess, but I reckon there must be at least 1,000 miles of Hesco walls all over Afghanistan, most of it around military installations.

Gurkha soldiers at UNOCA provide internal security. They man the 30-metre-high water tower which has full view of the multi-hectare facility. With time to spare, they have planted a 3x3-metre plot of corn under the tower.

Our security guy got 23 people all lined up in UN bullet-proof vehicles, and we headed convoy-style further east. After about 4km we took a left on a gravel road entering a massive Afghan army base.

By the looks of the place, this was the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC), the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) largest boot camp and training facility in the country.

According to the recent article “Home-grown army” by Anthony Davis in Jane’s Defence Weekly, the 8,100-hectare site is where thousands of new recruits to the ANA receive basic training before deployment to the field.

Led by the US, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is helping expand and modernise the ANA. From a November 2008 force level of 68,000, troop numbers are now about 90,000. The goal is to have ANA up to around 132,000 by the end of 2010, according to ISAF’s new commander, American General Stanley McChrystal, who announced a revised strategy September 1.

With public support waning in the West and increased casualties on the ground, it’s obvious why ISAF wants the ANA to take full responsibility for dealing with Taliban and other insurgents as soon as possible.

The KMTC now has a throughput capacity of 28,000 soldiers a year. As we drove through the base, a half-dozen company-size ANA units could be seen training on barren hills. It remains to be seen how effective these new units will be once they become active.

We also passed a parking lot where dozens of the new 4,500 American, up-armoured Humvees being donated to the ANA were ready for final delivery. Behind this lot was another more expansive one with tens of thousands of tonnes of rusting Soviet-era hardware – tanks, artillery pieces, trucks and personnel carriers – leftover from their misadventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

We skirted around past three new firing ranges and then ploughed on in a cloud of dust on a dirt track for another 4km, passing ruined mud barracks, scattered military outposts, and then on another few kilometres to the firing range facing a long empty range of hills. There was barely a tree in sight, only empty flat lands with a few donkeys and goats scratching at thirsty shrubs.

A German unit was visible about 300 metres north of where we parked. They were training an ANA team in how to use RPGs and a heavy, truck-mounted machine gun. The targets used for the RPGs were the size of a king-sized bed. I kept looking to see if there were any direct hits, but maybe it was the first day of school for the ANA lads.

Our hosts were generous, explaining which weapons we would use, how to fire them and what the safety precautions were.

The order of the day was a German-made, Heckler & Koch 5.56mm close-range automatic rifle (the weapon of choice for the UN’s close-protection security personnel), an Italian shotgun, and a German 9mm Glock pistol.

We divided in to three groups and each group had a go, one by one, with five rounds per person per weapon. The H&K 5.56 was the most interesting as it has an infrared sighting mechanism enabling the shooter to zero in on any target with amazing accuracy. The instructor led us through targets at 50, 100 and 200 metres from our firing positions.

It was an easy weapon to use. When I hit the metal human shape at 200 metres right in the head, the instructor said: “Not bad. You want a career as a sharpshooter?”

Ambassador Page was an eager student as well, so much so that he kept slipping back in the various queues for a second and third go. At one point his enthusiasm seems to have gotten the better of him as the bolt on the H&K nicked him on the nose, drawing a spot of blood.

It was the second time Page had been wounded in action during his tour in Afghanistan. The first was when he tripped in a parking lot in Herat during the August elections, a fall that required two stitches above his left eye.

Hard yards on the road to peace.



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