GARDEZ, Afghanistan – They say their M16s are dust-prone antiques. Their boots fall apart after a couple of months, they complain, and many of their helmets are cracked and patched. Yet they set out on patrol.
They are the men of the Afghan National Army, the critical part of the huge machine being built to protect Afghanistan's security after the NATO alliance is gone in less than three years.
With Afghanistan topping the agenda at a gathering of NATO leaders in Chicago on Sunday and Monday, an Associated Press reporter and photographer traveling with Afghan army forces in Logar and Paktia provinces are hearing a mix of messages from dozens of officers and enlisted men.
The foreign forces are leaving too soon, the men say. Why then are attacks by Afghan soldiers on NATO forces increasing, killing 35 last year and 22 so far this year? Because the Afghans feel disrespected, the soldiers say. Handing out inferior equipment is disrespectful; burning Qurans, however accidental, is disrespectful; urinating on dead bodies, even Taliban, as video that emerged in January showed U.S. troops doing, is disrespectful.
Washington spent more than $20 billion in 2010-2011 on training and equipping a 352,000 strong army and police force — one of the costliest projects ever undertaken by the Pentagon.
Yet the footsoldiers don't have night-vision goggles to go after the Taliban under cover of darkness.
At the rock-strewn firing range of the 203 Thunder Corps in Paktia province, Sgt. Said Aga recalled his M16 jamming in the middle of a fierce firefight with the Taliban, and grimaced as his young charges aired their gripes about the Vietnam-era firearm.
"The Americans have really much better equipment than us," he said. "Our vehicles and weapons are very weak compared to theirs."
A soldier named Abdul Karim said he'd prefer a 30-year-old Russian-made Kalashnikov to an M16. The Americans "are giving us old weapons and try to make them look new with polish and paint. We don't want their throwaways," he said.
In Kabul, Lt. Col. Timothy M. Stauffer, U. S. Army Director, Public Affairs, rejected the complaints about aging weapons, saying the Afghans get basically the same firearms that U.S. soldiers have. "I am not sure their complaints are valid," he said. "The equipment they are asking for and are being issued is sufficient to meet the current threat."
Most American troops in Afghanistan carry the M4, a shorter version of the M16. Both models have been criticized by some in the military for jamming in harsh conditions and requiring greater maintenance. The Kalashnikov is known as an easier-upkeep, all-conditions weapon, fueling its popularity in the developing world.
At the firing range, the complaints flew thick and fast. Col. Abdul Haleem Noori grabbed a young recruit's foot to show a gash in the heel of his boot.
"It's only two months old and it is falling apart, and we are told it is supposed to last one year," he said. The footwear was made by a manufacturer under contract to the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
Even the 3-year-old army band bemoans their equipment, including soldered trumpets dating back to the 1970s.
The conversation with Aga, the firing range instructor, shifted from poor equipment to the disturbingly high number of so-called "green-on-blue" attacks, a U.S. military term for Afghan soldiers killing their NATO counterparts.
Aga, a squat man with piercing brown eyes, gave off a strange mix of resentment, envy and appreciation. He didn't want the international soldiers to leave. "We still need them to bring peace," he said.
Then he explained the issue of respect.
When foreign forces patrol with Afghan forces, "they don't respect us. When we see that they don't have respect we get angry. Even myself, I have seen how they behave in Afghanistan. They have sometimes been cruel. I saw in operations they have entered mosques, I have seen this myself."
Another complaint: The foreigners don't let civilians drive in front of their convoys even if they are rushing a sick person to treatment, referring to the heavy security measures U.S. troops impose around their vehicles.
Col. Ahmed Jan Ahmedzai said incidents like the mistaken burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Base makes recruits susceptible to Taliban overtures. New recruits are watched carefully for signs of sympathy for the Taliban, he said.
Because of the attacks, international soldiers are no longer present at firing ranges, said Col. Asif Khan Saburi, in charge of recruit training in five provinces.
"When we have shooting practice I have to look at two things: How my soldier is shooting and that he doesn't fire at the U.S. soldiers," he said.
The U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul did not respond to several requests by The Associated Press for comment on the Afghan perception of a lack of respect.
In May last year, a U.S. Army team led by a behavioral scientist released a 70-page survey that revealed both Afghan and American soldiers hold disturbingly negative perceptions of the other.
According to the survey, many Afghan security personnel found U.S. troops "extremely arrogant, bullying and unwilling to listen to their advice" and sometimes lacking concern about Afghans' safety in combat. They accused the Americans of ignoring female privacy and using denigrating names for Afghans.
U.S. troops, in turn, often accused Afghan troops and police of "pervasive illicit drug use, massive thievery, personal instability, dishonesty, no integrity," the survey said.
Cobbling together an army in a nation at war for more than 30 years is daunting, said Saburi. Education has been stunted, ethnic divisions have hardened and the country is awash with weapons. At corps and brigade headquarters, soldiers are barred from carrying weapons because any altercation might explode into gunfire.
Communication is hampered by the fact that many Afghan recruits are illiterate villagers, he said.
A career officer, Saburi was less critical than others of the quality of weapons. He was satisfied with the heavy machine guns and sniper rifles being distributed to the army. But he said the rank and file were stuck with old M16s, instead of Kalashnikovs which he said are more suited to Afghan conditions. The army needs much more, he said: medevac helicopters, gunships, fighter aircraft, tanks.
NATO and the U.S. shouldn't leave in 2014, he said. "I think we need more time."
Meanwhile, the slow grind of daily patrolling never stops. In Logar Province, troops fan out along the hills, looking for Taliban and demonstrating their presence to the villagers. One of the soldiers, Mohammed Zaman, has written a little love poem to his country on the scratched surface of his helmet.
The men are fearless, says Col. Abdul Wakil Warzajy, a commander. They have taken hundreds of battle casualties, but good men alone don't make a good army, he says, adding: "An army is an army that is completely equipped."
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon