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.

(MORE: With War Ending, How Should We Look for a Peace Dividend?)

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.”

(PHOTOS: Battle in Kandahar)

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.

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