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Afghanistan: Mission Prepares Romanian Soldiers For NATO

More than 400 Romanian troops are working together with U.S. forces at the Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan. RFE/RL spoke with the Romanian commander about how the mission is preparing his country for NATO membership, and visited Romanian troops on a test-firing range that previously served as an Al-Qaeda training camp.

Tarnak, Afghanistan; 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It's morning in Tarnak, Afghanistan -- an abandoned village south of Kandahar that was once an Al-Qaeda training camp. Romanian soldiers based at a nearby airfield in Kandahar have gathered near the remnants of mud walls, all that remains of the former Taliban stronghold.

At the edge of Tarnak's rubble, facing into a flat expanse of rocky desert, Romanian Army Captain George Patric has positioned his troops for target practice. His troops aim at the wreckage of Soviet-era military vehicles. One of Patric's squad leaders, Captain Felix Tronaru, shouts orders for the squads to fire their AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers.

"But some soldiers at the lower level -- let's say at the squad level -- they do not have very good knowledge of the English language, and it is difficult when they go out on cooperative missions with American soldiers."
More than 400 Romanian soldiers are now based at the Kandahar airfield in support of operations of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. They are members of Romania's 280th Infantry Battalion in the 282nd Mechanized Brigade. The soldiers do not participate in combat missions with U.S. forces. But they do support the missions with about 20 Romanian-built BRT armored personnel carriers, which guard the Kandahar base. They also patrol nearby villages to bolster the security of civilians who work on U.S.-sponsored reconstruction projects.

The commander of the 280th Infantry Battalion is Lieutenant Colonel Victor Dascalescu. He says the live-fire exercises keep his troops ready in case they are attacked by Taliban fighters. More importantly, he says, Romania's close cooperation with U.S. forces is preparing the battalion for membership in NATO in May. "This is a challenge for us, but it will prove that we are ready to be partners in this alliance," he said. "The lessons that we are learning are, first of all, about interoperability [with U.S. forces]. We also are learning to overcome the language barrier."

Several Romanian officers in Kandahar display strong English-language skills, including an understanding of the technical military jargon used by U.S. soldiers when conducting operations. They say they are taking courses in English to improve their skills.

But Dascalescu admits that few of his rank-and-file soldiers understand the U.S. soldiers. "Really, this problem doesn't exist too much [at the level of officers] in my battalion. But some soldiers at the lower level -- let's say at the squad level -- they do not have very good knowledge of the English language, and it is difficult when they go out on cooperative missions with American soldiers," he said.

Still, camaraderie clearly is building between troops of the two countries. In the mess halls at the Kandahar base, U.S. and Romanian soldiers jokingly greet each other with the expression "Hello, Big Brother," while waiting in line for food. The phrase was taught to the Romanians by an American civilian employee of the firm that has the catering contract at the Kandahar base -- Kellogg, Brown & Root.

U.S. soldiers say they think the Romanians are "professional" and show the qualities of "good soldiers."

Romanian troops first arrived at the Kandahar base two years ago. They typically stay for six-month assignments. The previous assignment for the Romanians who now are at the base was to work as peacekeepers within the NATO-led KFOR mission in Kosovo. Romania's 280th Infantry Battalion arrived in Afghanistan about two months ago and is scheduled to stay four more months.

Another 25 Romanian soldiers are based in Kabul with the task of training recruits for the Afghan National Army. There also is a small group of Romanians -- less than a dozen -- working from the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul as part of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.

Dascalescu says that when his soldiers first started conducting patrols in villages near Kandahar using their BTRs, local Afghans would shout "Gorby" at them. He says he took those shouts as a sign the villagers thought the Romanians were Russian troops. That's because the Romanian BTRs are based on a design similar to the four-wheeled BTRs used by Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Knowing that many Afghans are still angry about the death and destruction wrought by the Soviet invasion, Dascalescu says he took the step of clearly differentiating his soldiers from the Russian military. "That has been the only problem with the local Afghans. When we first arrived, our armored personnel carriers were painted green -- just like the Russian armored personnel carriers. So we have taken the precautionary measure of painting our BTRs in desert camouflage colors and writing the words 'Romanian Army' on the front of the hulls in the Pashto language," Dascalescu said.

The gunners of the Romanian BTRs also can be seen at the Tarnak firing range, trying to hone their marksmanship in case they are attacked by Taliban fighters still thought to be sheltering in southern Afghanistan.