Out at the Kabul Military Training Center, Colonel Fazl Karim is giving a new batch of recruits his usual pep talk on a hilltop not far from the barracks. It’s two weeks before the graduation of the latest group of soldiers in the Afghan National Army, and the troops sit cross-legged in the dirt, aligned in neat rows. Construction crews build more barracks nearby—another 100,000 recruits are expected to go through the training in the next three years, gearing up for a final tally of 352,000 that will replace foreign soldiers. “You are all going to die one day,” shouts Karim. “You might as well die protecting your country!”
In Afghanistan, fatalism trumps optimism as a rallying cry. But perhaps that just reflects the realities of Afghan soldiering: by the end of 2014 the country’s armed forces will take over security from the international troops that have been stationed here for more than a decade. And yet the insurgency continues. What the Afghan troops lack in equipment, logistics, air support and training they more than make up for in sheer bravery.
But is it enough? Even the U.S. soldiers tasked with overseeing training are skeptical. “As long as training continues when we leave there is no reason to think that Afghanistan can’t continue to grow a professional army,” says Captain Jason Reed. “But it’s going to take generations.”
Adam Ferguson is a frequent contributor to TIME. Represented by VII, Ferguson has covered conflict for several years, primarily in Afghanistan.
Aryn Baker is the Middle East Bureau Chief for TIME.