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Afghan training goes back to basics as Trump faces US troop decision

 

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - At a recent, at times chaotic live-fire exercise near NATO's military base in Kandahar, Romanian army Master Sergeant Liviv Sandulache's advice to the assembled Afghan officers was simple:

"I don't want anybody to do any job without your command."

He and a growing number of NATO military advisers have begun spending more time in the field, hoping that grass-roots training will help Afghanistan's armed forces more effectively combat a Taliban insurgency that has gained in strength.

The return to lower-level engagement, after nearly two years during which the emphasis was on backroom operations like budgets, logistics and administration, could lead to an expanded training mission that top NATO commanders in Afghanistan are calling for.

That is one of the choices facing U.S. President Donald Trump, as he considers whether to send more American soldiers to Afghanistan, keep levels as they are or withdraw further from a conflict that is in its 16th year with no end in sight.

In the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, amid the wind, smoke and dust of the training area, troops from Romania and the United States teach Afghan officers to better lead and train their own men.

Their work reflects a desire by General John Nicholson, U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, to get back to basics such as coordinating artillery and air support and clearing roadside bombs.

That broader training authority was approved last summer, but with Afghan troops engaged in an increasingly deadly war through 2016, the winter lull in fighting has allowed for a concerted effort to refit and retrain Afghan security forces.

"The further down you can reach the better," U.S. Army Captain Everett Heiney, an adviser in Kandahar, said of the strategy to have advisers return to lower-level Afghan units.

RISING LOSSES

Advisers in Heiney's unit say their numbers are scheduled to rise from about 40 to around 100, and they hope to expand their programs to include a wider range of military skills.

While most international soldiers in Kandahar declined to comment on deliberations going on at a political level, they praised the strategy to return to places they had left when NATO declared its combat mission over at the end of 2014.

"You can always use more advisers to push down to the lower levels because ... it's good if there are more people doing training, more people at each brigade able to be with the units on a regular basis," Heiney told Reuters.

He oversees a program in Kandahar aimed at helping the Afghans master "fires," or using artillery or warplanes to support ground troops.

He has accompanied Afghan soldiers into combat to observe how they use their artillery, including Soviet-era D-30 122-mm Howitzer guns that are a ubiquitous presence on battlefields here but which could be used more effectively.

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