Image: Afghan army soldier
Patrick Baz  /  AFP - Getty Images
U.S. Marines with 1/3 Charlie Company patrol past an Afghan army soldier holding an RPG launcher at a market in Trikh Nawar on the North Eastern outskirts of Marjah on Feb. 22.
updated 2/25/2010 10:22:56 PM ET 2010-02-26T03:22:56

When U.S. Marines find suspicious powder that could be made into a bomb, they probe it with sophisticated tests. Afghan soldiers have their own method — they taste it.

The operation against the Taliban in Marjah has been a major trial for the Afghan military, showing the army is still far from capable of operating on its own. But its soldiers appear to be improving — even if they don't always do things by the book.

When soldiers taste the white powder, for example, they are testing to see if it is salty, an attribute of ammonium nitrate, a main ingredient in roadside bombs. And they do it even though they have access to the U.S. testing methods.

Afghans make up about 2,000 of the 6,000 troops fighting in the southern town, with thousands more operating in the surrounding Nad Ali district — the biggest Afghan contribution to an offensive of the eight-year war.

They've searched houses, identified suspected Taliban, helped detect bombs and acted as a liaison between Marines and Afghan civilians — groups that barely understand each other.

"I think we learn from each other," said Sgt. Abdulhadi Deljuh, one of the Afghan troops in Marjah with the Marines. A former fighter in the ethnic Uzbek militia from the north, Deljuh joined the Afghan National Army two years ago. "The Americans bring us more weapons and more discipline ... but we're at least as brave."

U.S. still making major decisions
Though the Afghan army is now more than 100,000 strong, it's not ready to go it alone — a key condition for U.S. and other international troops to leave. It lacks an adequate supply and logistical network as well as a professional noncommissioned officer force. Although NATO insists the Marjah offensive is Afghan-led, the Americans appear to make all the major decisions on the ground.

Throughout the operation, American commanders at all levels have been eager to showcase their Afghan counterparts. "We've got some of the very best Afghan troops with us," said Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in Helmand province, as he toured Marjah last week with an Afghan general.

Afghan generals have worked with the Americans for years. In Marjah, the pairing goes down to the lowest echelon.

Marines have been fighting, eating and sleeping alongside some of the best soldiers the Afghan army could muster.

"I've got to be honest, it's been going far better than I'd expected," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Whitman, who has been leading the 1st Platoon of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines through hours of gunbattles and treacherous marches across poppy fields every day since the offensive began Feb.13.

"The professional respect is there, and at the squad level, integration is good," Whitman said.

Still, there are points of friction.

As the Marjah assault progressed, Whitman has had to increase pressure on Afghan troops, especially when they revert to their habit of thinking Americans will do everything for them. At times, Afghan soldiers with 1st Platoon have refused to go on the risky night marches for supplies. And Whitman threatened that those refusing to carry their own food rations would go without eating.

Some Afghans have refused to stand guard at night, or slipped away during their post, leaving Marines to do all the work. Poorly trained Afghan soldiers sometimes shoot without thinking of friendly fire casualties, though the problem has considerably lessened since the Afghan army was outfitted with American M16 rifles. The switch helped differentiate friendly shooting from the Taliban's higher-pitched Kalashnikov rounds.

But one Afghan soldier knocked down a Marine lieutenant last week when he fired a rocket-propelled grenade without checking to see if anyone was behind him and vulnerable to the backblast of gases and unburned powder.

Tempers have flared among Marines as rare plastic bottles of drinking water carried over long distances disappeared when Afghan troops need to wash before Muslim prayers.

Marines often repeat stories of Afghan troops refusing to fight. But, in contrast with last year, many now conclude their stories by stating: "Well, actually, a couple of guys on my squad are pretty good."

First-name basis
A typical sign of growing cooperation has been the Marines and Afghans getting to know each other's names. Marines started calling one Afghan soldier "RPG," because of the grenade launcher he carries. He was later nicknamed "Kite," because Marines say he's "high as a kite" in the mornings after smoking his first joint of hashish. As respect for his fighting grew, he was upgraded to Zabeer, his first name.

Like many others, Zabeer now trades items from his Afghan military ration with Marines tired of their own fare. One big hit is Cheerios breakfast cereal, which Afghans get in exchange for cheddar cheese.

The most significant improvement is that Marines increasingly seem to respect the Afghans' performance in combat. Akbar, the lieutenant with 1st Platoon, grabbed an RPG-launcher from one of his soldiers last week and knelt in the open to fire a precise shot at insurgents, despite bullets flying around him. All the Marines taking cover nearby cheered.

An hour later, a bullet ripped through Akbar's arm as his troops charged the Taliban, ahead of the more disciplined Marines who stuck to their standard tactics.

"Don't worry, I'll be back within a week," said a heavily sedated Akbar as he was flown to an American base for treatment. He said it was the 20th time he was injured by the Taliban. There are many like him among Afghan ranks.

"Not once have I doubted their fighting capacities," Whitman said of Afghan troops. "But they need to be pulled by someone who's a true warrior."

Akbar's captain skipped the latest, grueling three-day march, stating he had a stomach ache. One of his soldiers shot himself in the foot while cleaning his weapon and is now missing a toe.

Another, Malachi, was hit in the leg by a Taliban bullet. "He's an excellent guy," says Whitman, who carried him on his shoulders to a medical evacuation zone while insurgents kept shooting.

Like other Marines in his platoon, Whitman has spotted the good men with his unit. "I'd fight any day of the week with 25 percent of these guys," says Whitman, stating another half are all right. Then there's the remaining quarter, which Whitman says he'd rather not have with him.

"But even in the U.S., there's always 10 percent of a team you could make better."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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