Did Kabul gunbattle change Afghans' view of their army?

A poster supporting the Afghan National Army

As Nato troops prepare to withdraw, the Afghan army and police have taken the lead in battling some of the most challenging insurgent attacks in recent months. As their role increases, they have won praise not only from Nato allies, but also from the wider public.

One of the most memorable images taken during the concerted insurgent attacks in Kabul on 15 April this year shows an Afghan police commando, wounded but walking.

He is holding a Kalashnikov rifle, his khaki trousers blood-stained above the right knee.

The picture has become the poster image for an apparent new wave of public support for the military which has found expression on the internet as well as in some parts of the media.

Image caption Photos of the wounded commando attracted wide support online

On the social networking site Facebook, the photograph has attracted hundreds of comments.

It was "the proudest moment of my life to see a real hero", reads one comment.

Another says: "He made me cry of happiness! We are proud for having such heroes that lay their lives on the front line to defeat the enemy, save our lives and give us the feeling to live in a secure Afghanistan."

Afghan police and commandos were in the forefront of the 18-hour gun battle which erupted on the streets of Kabul after militants attacked several locations in the city on 15 April. Two Afghan soldiers and 17 militants were killed.

Nato was quick to point to the role played by local forces as evidence of their increasing capability.

International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) commander John Allen said he was proud of the response.

"They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained."

'Winning hearts'

It's a message Nato has been putting across more frequently, with the training of Afghan forces and handover of security responsibilities key to its exit strategy.

But the events of 15 April had a much wider resonance beyond the confines of the military.

The Afghan Bokhdi news agency summarised the phenomenon with the headline "From battling the Taleban to winning people's hearts".

Image caption Afghan security forces are taking an increasingly dominant role

The most obvious expression of pride has been on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, with several pages dedicated to the Afghan army and police.

Pictures of security forces in battle attract hundreds of comments.

One, showing two members of an Afghan elite unit trying to get inside a building, attracted dozens of comments of appreciation.

Abdul Had Sabawoon wrote: "May Allah give our ANA [Afghan National Army] more strength to defeat the enemies of our country and [of] Islam."

And a Facebook youth group calling themselves 'Group Debate' commented: "If you see pictures like this and you don't cry from happiness you're not Afghan."

Another group plans to take its message to the streets with a campaign to flood Kabul with posters, stickers and leaflets in support of the Afghan army.

But such sentiments have appeared before the attacks on 15 April, too, and the Afghan government has done its best to foster them.

Earlier this year, several soldiers who lost their lives while foiling suicide attacks in Kabul were honoured and their families received land and money in compensation.

In one case a guard at an anti-riot forces base in the south of the capital spotted a suspect, ran up and wrapped himself around the attacker. The bomber set off his explosives and both were killed.

It is stories like these which feed a sense of admiration among a public which has been watching the gradual handover of security responsibilities to the ANA with some scepticism.

The trend is in stark contrast to the increasing number of killings of foreign troops by Afghan army and police officers, a trend which has raised question marks over the integrity of the Afghan force.

'Morale boost'

Javier Manzano, a Mexican photojournalist based in Kabul, recently accompanied a joint four-day mission of US and Afghan army platoons on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

He was impressed by the Afghan soldiers. He says they move quickly as they have less ammunition and lighter packs, but there are drawbacks.

"The positives are it's their country, they can move fairly fast, they are used to walking and they are in pretty good shape," he says.

"The other side is that after the second or the third day they ask their American counterparts for water and rations."

Image caption The security forces are set to grow to a total number of over 350,000 by 2015

A lack of equipment and short training times have long been concerns for the Afghan army.

But Javier Manzano, who also took pictures of the 15 April attacks in Kabul, says the force has done a good job.

"They performed really, really well, they got the job done and they were the ones that were wounded and received the casualties."

And he thinks that the outpouring of support in the wider public could be just as important as training and equipment.

"There were poems being made about the Afghan security forces and I think it is a great morale boost and that is what they need... if you feel that you get respect that will definitely boost morale and make them more efficient."

The question is whether the sentiments expressed on the internet are representative of wider public opinion.

The ranks of the security forces are supposed to grow to a total number of over 350,000 by 2015, according to the defence ministry.

As they take on an increasingly dominant role, the challenge will be to establish a force that represents everyone in a country that faces huge problems, from corruption to internal divisions.

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