Afghanistan's Army As You've Never Seen It (Gardens, Glory And All)

“They have gardens everywhere,” says filmmaker Brenda Dorne. She’s enthusing about an unlikely subject: the Afghan National Army, soon to be the main opponent to the Taliban.

Afghan soldiers, filmed for the upcoming nonfiction short, "Afghanistan Rising." Photograph courtesy EXE Studio Global.

By the year’s end, American troops are likely to withdraw from Afghanistan, the so-called Graveyard of Empires. The nearly 200,000 soldiers of the ANA will be left largely to hold their own against their “enemies,” as they refer to insurgents. How well they will fare is a subject of much speculation in Western media. Some hail the “old-fashioned Britishness” of the neatly-tented officer’s academy west of Kabul. Others fret over the rates of drug use and friendly fire among soldiers.

Meanwhile Dorne, who traveled to Afghanistan to produce a movie about the ANA, "Afghanistan Rising," could have been talking about visiting her kids at boarding school.

“The uniforms were crisp, their warehouses were pristine and clean. They were so well organized, and [the bases were] nicer than a lot of the bases I’ve shot in the U.S,” she told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. The gardens belong to generals, who -- schoolmasterish in this telling -- tend to them on base.

Recruits at the Kabul Military Training Center, some 8 miles east of the city's outskirts. Photograph courtesy EXE Studio Global.

Of course, reality is bloody and complex. Last month brought what seems to have been the worst insurgent attack on the ANA since 2010, an overnight ambush that left 21 -- mostly sleeping -- soldiers dead. Gardens or no, the Afghan military units are vulnerable, wrote the New York Times, “generally no longer accompanied by American or other NATO advisers and [without] the close air support they often enjoyed.”

Dorne, whose company EXE Studio Global often contracts with the U.S. Military, says what such reports are missing is a sense of the spirit of the generals, commanders and soldiers readying themselves in Afghanistan.

“In the whole month we were there we didn’t stop feeling they were in a state of grace and hope and power,” she said.

Her team included director Sam French, an American expat living in Afghanistan, whose 2012 short film "Buzkashi Boys," about the country’s dangerous, polo-like national sport, was nominated for an Oscar last year.

Fresh graduates of the KMTC at convocation. Photograph courtesy EXE Studio Global.

The 20-minute nonfiction film that took shape under French's direction and Dorne's production was a different beast altogether -- commissioned by an external party (whom Dorne says cannot be identified for security reasons) and meant to be seen only by members of the U.S. State Department, Afghan Army and Afghan National Security Force. "Afghanistan Rising" was to be a sort of training video on the importance of logistics, from getting socks to soldiers to keeping ammunition stocked. The EXE team spent a month of 2013 in Afghanistan, filming at bases and inside military warehouses.

But upon returning to the U.S., footage in hand, Dorne and her client decided to share it with the larger public. (While the film won't be viewable online for a few weeks, you can watch a trailer here.)

Writing on the film’s official website, Dorne explains her reasoning. She describes arriving in Afghanistan expecting to meet a “military in disarray,” only to find herself filming a spirited meeting among generals discussing strategy for 2014.

A member of the Afghan Air Force. Photograph courtesy EXE Studio Global.

This view of the fledgling military -- as “organized, empowered and united,” in Dorne’s words -- is one she hopes can take root in the public consciousness.

“Media has historically been a powerful tool in winning wars,” she writes. “But so much of what we hear in the US about Afghanistan is negative press. We don’t get the hero stories. We don’t hear about the successes.”