Framework

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Azizullah, 20, below, in his fifth week at the Kabul Military Training Center, goes through a weapons exercise. Azizullah and his first cousin Rahmatullah, not shown, are among many in their family in the armed forces. Both were encouraged to join by their fathers and uncles, Pashtuns from a nearby hilltop village where support for Afghan security forces is strong and hatred of Taliban insurgents runs deep.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Rahmatullah, left, 21, and his cousin Azizullah, 20, go through weapons training at the Kabul Military Training Center. They are among many in their family in the armed forces. Soldiering pays about $155 a month for recruits and about $230 a month after they join a unit, better than anything they can find in their hardscrabble village. The food is plentiful and the beds are warm. Oh yes, each recruit adds, almost as an afterthought, "And I want to serve my country and protect it from its enemies," meaning the Taliban.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

A new Afghan recruit is checked for ammunition after going through automatic rifle training at the Kabul Military Training Center as part of the concerted effort to avoid so-called insider attacks.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

The Afghan National Army is nearing its goal of 195,000 members. The recruits train with American M-16 automatic rifles.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

At the Kabul Military Training Center, Afghan army recruits go through a visual physical inspection outside the barracks.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

New Afghan recruits use old helmets until they are assigned to a unit, at which time they are given the same helmets and body armor used by U.S. soldiers.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

New recruits to the Afghan National Army practice formations at the Kabul Military Training Center.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Training of recruits for the Afghan National Army normally takes nine weeks, but this class of 1,390 went through a pilot 12-week program. Those who make it go on to further unit training.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

At the Kabul Military Training Center, 1,390 recruits graduate from a pilot 12-week training program. They will go on to unit training.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Rahmatullah, 21, is not able to read or write, but is pictured during his fifth week as an Afghan National Army recruit. He speaks to his mother by phone from the Kabul Military Training Center.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Qandi Gul, left, father of Rahmatullah, an Afghan National Army recruit, says he will encourage all of his sons to join the armed forces and serve their country, including his youngest, Haroon, 2 1/2, and Ruhollah, 18, right.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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Rahmatullah, an illiterate young man with a wispy beard and remnants of teenage acne, may represent the last, best hope for Afghanistan’s national army.

Wearing an old Russian-style helmet and firing an American M-16 automatic rifle, he squinted as his hissing rounds found their target on a firing range at the national training academy.

At his elbow was his first cousin Azizullah, a functionally illiterate Pashtun tribesman who was crouching down to fire his own M-16. The cousins decided this fall to join the Afghan National Army, which for a decade has struggled to mold test itself into an effective fighting force. Both were encouraged to join by their fathers and uncles, Pashtuns from a nearby hilltop village where support for Afghan security forces is strong and hatred of Taliban insurgents runs deep.

Rahmatullah, 21, and Azizullah, 20, freely admitted that their own motives were more base: Soldiering pays about $155 a month for recruits and about $230 a month after they join a unit, better than anything they can find in their hardscrabble village. The food is plentiful and the beds are warm. Oh yes, each recruit added, almost as an afterthought, “And I want to serve my country and protect it from its enemies,” meaning the Taliban.

The two callow Pashtun villagers and 1,400 fellow recruits in 1st Battalion, 4th Company, 1st Platoon, are the vanguard of a force that must fight the Taliban on its own after U.S. troops withdraw by the end of 2014. Their 18 weeks of training here will be tested in Afghanistan’s deserts and mountains, where hardened Taliban insurgents are poised to attack.

Five weeks into training, the cousins were off to a good start. Rahmatullah put 20 of 20 shots into the center of target cutouts 25 yards away. Azizullah hit 18 of 20. Neither man had ever fired a gun before — or so they claimed. “They are motivated and they learn fast,” said the platoon instructor, 1st Sgt. Haga Mohammed. “They’ll be ready to fight when they leave here; all our guys will be ready, believe me.”

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