Bombs Away: Will Afghanistan’s Artillerymen Learn How to Shoot Right?

TIME goes to the frontlines in Afghanistan where U.S. and NATO forces are trying to train a fledgling army how to fight effectively in the mountains

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John Wendle for TIME

Afghan artillerymen run through a dry fire drill during a training exercise at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, Afghanistan

Over the past 18 months, U.S. forces have begun to acknowledge and do something about the problems that face the Afghan army when it comes to its artillery readiness. They are providing weapons, ammunition and training at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) and through Security Force Assistance Teams (SFAT) and Stabilization and Transition Teams (STT) deployed out to smaller bases across the country.

At the KMTC, artillerymen can go through anything from a six-week course on basic maintenance to a 16-week officer career course. This year, the school will have trained over 1,200 artillerymen, which will bring the total strength of the artillery corps to more than 2,200 since its formation in 2010. The U.S. Army is still in the process of procuring 194 D-30s for the ANA. However, in mid-September this year, Staff Sergeant Mike Wimberly, an SFAT member training Afghan artillery crews at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, said the ANA had gotten only 64 guns.

At Forward Operating Base Shank, with Wimberly, the challenge appears in starker relief. Standing behind a D-30 painted a light yellow, a crew of six loudly counts off in Pashto, only to have artilleryman number five shout “seven!” They start over and get it right, then lustily shout, “Enemy! Death! Enemy! Death! Enemy! Death!” Then organized chaos breaks out as they swarm their gun, trying to ready it for action in a minute and 10 seconds. They uncover the recoil system, unclip clips and crank cranks so fast their arms become blurs. Then one soldier cannot unclip a clip, and he just stands there. The commander comes over and shouts, and he hops to it again.

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At the same time, across a gravel lot, Afghan officers who learned that morning how to use sight to calculate bearings and arcs for indirect fire — hitting a target they cannot see — teach junior officers and noncommissioned officers how to use it. One officer sat writing a cheat sheet on his palm. A majority of Afghans, though, cannot read, let alone decipher a map or do the trigonometry necessary for the exercise. Though not nonexistent, the technical exactitude, education and discipline needed for accurate artillery are all elements lacking in Afghanistan.

“Some of them, if you give them a map, they couldn’t point out where their house was. But if you showed them a terrain map, they would start to be able to use the terrain to show you where they live,” says Wimberly. “Depending on what level they’re at, they should be able to read and write. It takes them a long time to calculate. That’s the longest part.” But in artillery, delays can translate into infantry being overrun and killed.

Aside from the massive difficulty of teaching people complex mathematics in a foreign language through interpreters, there are other complications. U.S. trainers have had to teach Afghan officers that they need to have up-to-date maps and intelligence, so they do not shell civilian areas or compatriots they cannot see on the opposite slope of a mountain by mistake.

“Artillery is a perishable skill. It’s all about repetition. These guys will quadruple the amount of dry fire missions compared to the ones that they’ll actually shoot, because if they don’t, they just make mistakes. Everything about artillery is about being safe, because when we shoot it’s [to support] somebody on the other end,” says Wimberly.

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But, the SFAT trainers have had the Afghan officers five days a week for eight weeks, and they think the lessons are starting to sink in. And they need to. Indirect fire had a major impact during the grinding war between the Soviets and the mujahedin and will continue to play an important role as the U.S. and NATO prepare for withdrawal by the end of 2014 and the ANA have to take on the Taliban and other insurgent groups by themselves.

Also, the Afghans do not have a choice. “It used to be that if [the Afghans] needed it, we just gave it to them, because it was easier than making them get it for themselves. But now we’ve kind of pulled the rug, so, it makes them stand up on their own. And I think that that’s what they need,” says Wimberly.

The Afghans seem to understand the new ethos and are realistic about the conditions they will be fighting in when the Americans leave. When asked if he would prefer an advanced American howitzer that uses a computer for targeting, Sergeant Nasratullah, a D-30 howitzer commander says, “I’m sure their gun can target a long distance, but I’d rather have these guns, because they are very simple to use.”

As a flight of Apaches and Black Hawks thump overhead, Wimberly steps aside from observing a gun crew run yet another drill. Over the din of the training and the noise of the American air power overhead, he says, “I feel that they’ll be trained. I think time will tell how they react to it. Because eventually there’s not going to be a U.S. infantry platoon to go out with their infantry. There’s not going be a U.S. gun battery that can partner with theirs. So the more we pull away from [them] now, while we’re still here, the better they will be for the long haul.”
Clarification: The original version of this story did not indicate that the opening anecdote took place in 2011. The current version makes that clearer and places the anecdote in the context of the progress–or lack of it–in the training of Afghan artillerymen.

MORE: Making All Our Troops Bulletproof

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