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

Clarification Appended: Nov. 2, 2012
Afghanistan does not have the European grasslands that massed tank divisions and infantry could once roll across. The mountains here provide natural fortresses for hit-and-run insurgent bands. It still takes infantry to defeat an enemy on this terrain, but artillery also plays an important role. A year ago, the Afghan government’s artillery was virtually non-existent. But, as the U.S. and NATO prepare to leave by the end of 2014, they have placed more urgency on training and equipping an Afghan artillery corps. Some gains have been made compared to what I witnessed firsthand in October 2011.

The afternoon was quiet and hot, and the men of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment were standing guard and shoveling rocky dirt into sandbags. Suddenly the heavy chatter of the 240-Bravo machine gun ripped open the tired quiet. “Incoming!” someone shouted. We dove for cover. There was a dull whoosh and a distant explosion down the side of the thousand-foot mountain as an insurgent mortar team missed Outpost Shal, a small base on the border with Pakistan in Kunar province.

An allied Afghan platoon opened up with their .50-caliber machine gun, spraying bullets all over the valley, and their mortar team went into action. Within seconds, the team of three had run down to their position, yanked the cover off the mouth of the heaviest weapon on the post, unwrapped an 82-mm round and dropped it down the tube. There was a strong metallic clink, followed by a blast as the bomb went zooming out from the mortar. Seconds later a boom reverberated over the surrounding mountains, and the Afghan crew stood on tiptoe, trying to see where it had landed.

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And that is the point. Over the course of 10 days in October 2011, the Afghan National Army (ANA) mortar crew never actually aimed their tube. They never took a bearing, never read out elevations, never set up their aiming sticks — though they did continuously clean and oil the weapon.

One American soldier fighting alongside the Afghan artillerymen explains part of the problem. “Most of their stuff is Russian, like their artillery and whatnot. So it’s funny, they wanted us to teach them — our artillery guys — how to shoot, so they can actually get correct grids and all that,” Sergeant Steven Schwigert tells TIME. “And our artillery guys walked over there and looked [at the equipment], and they said, ‘O.K., you guys said it had instructions, right?’ And [the ANA] say, ‘Yeah,’ and they pulled out this manual, and they sat it down in front of them, and it’s all in Russian. And our guys were like, ‘What the … ?’”

As the U.S. and its NATO allies start to close down or hand over bases to their ANA counterparts ahead of the planned 2014 withdrawal, the Afghans are going to have to begin handling the entire range of duties that an army would normally take care of itself — from logistics and medevac to air support and artillery. And, in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, artillery is “essential,” says First Lieutenant Matthew Bergeron, chief of the battery stationed at Combat Outpost Monti.

“They’re getting better at direct fire, but their capability of shooting indirect, it’s basically none. They don’t have the capability of doing it, at least accurately,” says Bergeron. “It’s just a lack of equipment and knowledge. Until they get that ability, they can’t shoot indirect fire.”

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And the ANA will have to catch up quickly, as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw, since Afghanistan’s mountains and valleys provide perfect cover for insurgents. This makes learning how to shoot over a ridge to hit something on the opposite slope a necessity. “[Indirect-fire missions are] essentially what it takes around here, especially at those outposts, because they’re in the middle of nowhere, and you’re literally surrounded by the enemy, 360 degrees,” Bergeron says.

A walk down to the ANA’s gun line on the Afghan side of Combat Outpost Monti does not instill confidence. The sun gleamed off the cannon’s freshly oiled exterior, but this did nothing to cover the rust spotting the field piece. It was a D-30 howitzer, which first entered service in 1963 and was introduced to Afghanistan by the Soviets, who sent it to help arm the communist regime; later, it would be deployed during their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and war against the mujahedin.

To clean their 122-mm field piece, the gun crew had elevated the weapon almost straight up. From the top chirped a very nervous monkey, which one of the soldiers had tied for no apparent reason with a string to the muzzle of the apparatus. The monkey peeked over the edge and looked down at us, his darting eyes seeming to say that he knew he was in a pickle. The crew laughed.

Back on the U.S. side of the base, Colonel Fakir Mohammad Gundiwal, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the ANA’s 201st Corps, was sitting in his office at a desk piled high with documents, but lacking a computer. After dodging questions and saying that the army had no problems, the colonel, who has served as a soldier of one stripe or another for nearly three decades, suddenly relented and enumerated a specific series of problems facing the Afghan Army.

“It’s a problem with our Defense Ministry. It’s bad management. We need the right man, at the right time, for the right job. Sometimes they’ll send a guy who has logistics training to the artillery and the guy with artillery training to logistics,” Gundiwal says.

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.

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