KABUL, Afghanistan – The first 600 troops in the new Afghan army completed six weeks of basic training Wednesday, eagerly performing their skills before Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and other dignitaries.
The men — drawn from every province and ethnic group in Afghanistan — are to be the vanguard of a 68,000-strong army that Karzai says will bring an end to the "warlordism" that has kept the country mired in decades of civil war and destruction.
But making that army a reality is many months and many hundreds of millions of dollars away. On Wednesday in Geneva, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah asked donor countries for $422 million to rebuild the army and police. President Bush has asked Congress to approve a $278 million package of extra aid for Afghanistan, nearly half of which will go for security. Britain, Russia, Pakistan, India, China and Iran also pledged support.
Afghanistan is also waiting for most of the $4.5 billion pledged by international donors in January, none of which is earmarked for the army.
At Wednesday's military ceremony, Karzai said his interim administration was staying on top of the donors.
"The countries that have promised us money, they should know we're after them," he said.
The new troops, dressed in green camouflage uniforms and green berets and armed with machine guns, demonstrated their response to a mock attack with a long burst of machine-gun fire and smoke grenades, finally apprehending the bad guys hiding in a ditch.
"Today, after many long years, we have our own national army in Afghanistan. The task before this army is to defend its country, its people, and its religion," Karzai said as the troops stood at attention on a dusty field in Kabul. "I assure the people of Afghanistan that this national army will work in defense of their rights and their security."
The men, many veterans of the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, were chosen by local governments and approved by the Defense Ministry of the fledgling administration. Because many local governments are controlled by rival warlords, one challenge is to ensure the troops remain loyal to the central government and not their former bosses.
Afghan authorities aim to create an army and air force of 68,000, a border guard and a 74,000-strong police force. But they also need to disarm at least 70,000 combatants following 23 years of war.
"We will not allow groups of armed people to call themselves armies ... in other words, no warlordism," Karzai said.
The prime minister said he felt "a volcano of emotion" upon seeing the troops and hoped the men would be the beginning of a force that "will stand on its own feet in defending Afghanistan and in fighting terrorism and all other evils."
French, German, Dutch, Italian, Turkish and British instructors trained the troops. The 18 nations in the International Security Assistance Force donated the equipment. American instructors are to take a lead role in training subsequent battalions, said Flight Lt. Tony Marshall, a British spokesman for the peacekeepers.
The new troops said they were eager to be a force for stability.
Col. Ahmadullah, 35, who is in charge of 20 soldiers, said he was a shopkeeper during Taliban rule, but fought against the Soviets.
"I joined the new army so that I can defend my country," said Ahmadullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "We are not trained to fight innocent people, but only to fight tyranny and terrorism."
In other developments:
— Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, leading a delegation of U.S. congressmen on a one-day trip to Afghanistan, called on Washington to compensate Afghans who lost family members in misdirected American bombings. The other eight congressmen on the trip emphasized what they said was a pressing need to follow up U.S. military successes in Afghanistan with economic aid.
— U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Finn presented his credentials to Karzai, pledging U.S. friendship and saying Washington looks "forward to an Afghanistan that is master in its own house, that builds a secure future for its people, and that has peaceful relations in the region."
— Elections were being held at Kabul University and other higher education centers in the capital to pick chancellors, deans and members of academic councils. "After two decades of ideological tyranny, for the first time, democracy will be tested on our campuses," the Ministry of Higher Education said of the elections, which wrap up Thursday.