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NATO Commander: Afghan Forces Making Progress, But Still Not Ready

The U.S. head of the Afghan security forces training mission said this week that while progress is being made among Afghan ranks, significant challenges stand in the way of Afghan forces taking the reins. His assessment comes as the July target date approaches for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan.

The Afghan security forces have been built up by rapid recruitment in the last two years, and the U.S. is on track to spend some $11 billion on training and equipping those forces this year — a sum Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, pointed out is roughly a tenth of the overall outlay on the war. That cost would, for the foreseeable future, be unsustainable for the Afghan government.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations Tuesday, Caldwell touted the progress that monetary investment has wrought, with “tremendous strides” in the past 20 months that the NATO training command has been in place, including some 100,000 new recruits joining the Afghan security forces. But he cautioned that it is still a work in progress and that NATO will likely be in place beyond the 2014 deadline in an “training and advising” role.

Caldwell said that within the overall force, which they hope to grow to more than 300,000 this year, there is “an intense desire on the part of the Afghans to be responsible for the security of their own country,” but at present they are “not at the point where they can operate independently.”

The BBC’s Caroline Wyatt reports on the uneven progress: “[D]espite efforts to ensure quality as well as quantity in the recruits, many working closely with the [Afghan National Army] admit that there are still some Afghan soldiers who are not up to the mark — young men who have signed up to eke out a basic living for themselves and their families, only to find themselves terrified or clueless in the midst of the fighting in southern Afghanistan.”

Caldwell said he inherited a “very under-resourced” situation when the push for a massive buildup began in November of 2009, including a police force “that was not properly paid, wasn’t trained, wasn’t properly equipped, was poorly led,” he said. Among other changes, he said, their pay has been doubled to be on par with that of army recruits and has helped reduce desertions. The compensation contrasts with earlier rates — in 2004, the Taliban paid up to three times a soldier’s salary.

Corruption poses a major problem as funds are disbursed quickly and are difficult to monitor. A recent trial in Mazar-i-Shairf, in which three finance officers were accused of altering the books to pocket soldiers’ salaries, underscores the difficulty of fighting low-level corruption. But it also was cited as an example of progress in rooting out theft.

Caldwell said his team is working to “reduce the opportunities for corruption” and to “teach loyalty to an institution, not a person.”

Despite the corruption allegations and other problems, the public still has a generally positive view of the Afghan army. According to a survey conducted by the Asia Foundation last year, more than 85 percent of respondents said they believe the Afghan National Army is helping improve security in Afghanistan.

However, other issues are hindering the fledgling Afghan forces and their trainers, including rampant illiteracy. Nine out of every 10 recruits cannot read, a problem Caldwell said was not addressed early on. Now, within the military’s agenda, literacy is seen as an “essential enabler” for building a self-sustaining force. He said recruits now spend up to two hours a day in the classroom learning to read, write and count.

Another challenge lies in building the logistical capability needed to enable the fighters — from medical to financial to human resources services to transportation — that will be needed to phase out coalition support. Caldwell said “the human capital just does not exist” to maintain all aspects of the military yet, not to mention the financial backing that still comes largely from the United States.

Afghanistan also has a small air force, with most of its pilots are still trained in United States or United Arab Emirates. The Afghan Air Force pales in size compared to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

Caldwell said he was confident that the wider political calls for a steeper drawdown of troops would not hamper the training of Afghan forces, and that they would be provided with adequate resources no matter what the reduction in foreign troops amounts to, and that “we’re going to be able to adjust accordingly to whatever it is.”

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