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Afghan Soldiers Ready to Fight Drug Trade

USA Today

FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) — Sixteen Afghan soldiers have graduated from a new training program at Fort Bliss, armed with knowledge on how to fly Russian-made helicopters in anti-drug missions over their war-torn country. The men will now make their final preparations to head back to Afghanistan, where they are expected to immediately get to work trying to halt the booming narcotics trade.

At their graduation ceremony Friday, Ashraf Haidari, a spokesman for the Afghan embassy in Washington, called the soldiers "Afghanistan's heroes" and thanked them for their service.

He said they also will help U.S.-led coalition troops fight terrorism in their homeland, the world's top opium producer.

"Thirty years of war left the country in ruins and fueled the drug trade," Haidari said. "Your graduation is a testament to the long-term commitment of the United States to Afghanistan."

The soldiers are the first of three classes of pilots, flight engineers and crew chiefs scheduled to come to Fort Bliss for similar training. In Afghanistan, they will work with the Afghan National Interdiction Unit, which works closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Shirzia, an Afghan Army Air Corps soldier who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons, said he was proud to take on the dangerous work.

"Because we went through a lot of hard times we want our children to grow up in a safe world," Shirzia said through a translator. "We want our kids to respect humanity."

Shirzia and his comrades, who were all Air Corps soldiers before being selected for the training program, learned to use night-vision equipment, a technology new to Afghanistan's fledgling military.

Despite concerns for their safety, the soldiers said they have a duty to fight their country's drug lords.

"It's a responsibility of the people of any country," said 35-year-old Naseer, who along with the other soldiers speaks very little English.

Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Carlos Torres, who supervised the training, said the Russian-built MI-17 helicopters the soldiers will fly in Afghanistan won't be armed. He would not discuss specifics of the operations, saying only that it was an anti-drug mission.

DEA Agent William Brown, who leads the agency's aviation division, said the flight crews will be invaluable to both Afghanistan and the United States.

"This is a critical mission," Brown told the soldiers. "Your participation is extremely important, if not vital to the success of this program."

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