The U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has taken on a daunting task — a huge increase in its efforts to recruit, train and equip Kabul’s army and national police forces.
In briefings for news media over the past two weeks, senior U.S. and NATO officers repeatedly have laid out a series of ambitious targets for the coming year, including recruiting more than 140,000 Afghans to the police and army — a number greater than the current size of the nation’s entire military.
Meeting these targets — in order to forge security forces that can keep the peace in war-battered Afghanistan — is crucial if the Obama administration is going to be able to keep to its scheduled drawdown next year.
“Our mission is critical to ISAF’s overall strategy of transition of security to the Afghan government,” said Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the officer in charge of U.S. and NATO training and security transition. “In many ways, you can say that the Afghan National Security Force is transition.”
The briefings from Gen. Caldwell and several of his senior officers were finished as a new critique of U.S. policy in Afghanistan was published by foreign policy analysts at the New America Foundation think tank.
In “A New Way Forward,” a bipartisan group of scholars calls for a change of strategy in Afghanistan and urges the administration to abandon “nation-building counterinsurgency efforts” there.
“Successful counterinsurgency efforts … require an effective local partner, and the Karzai government in Kabul is anything but,” the report states, referring to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“I would be much more confident in the utility of these targets if we were not ignoring the regional and ethnic elements of the conflict,” Matthew Hoh, the lead author, said in an interview with The Washington Times, noting that the Afghan army appeared to be overwhelmingly led by Tajiks — historic opponents of the majority-Pashtun community.
“We are taking sides in what is, from one point of view, a civil war,” Mr. Hoh added. “It is the same mistake we made in the 2003-to-2006 period in Iraq,” when the United States dissolved the Sunni-led Iraqi military and relied on largely Shiite security forces.
Gen. Caldwell, while lauding the U.S.-led coalition’s progress in recruitment and training — he noted that the army and police had grown faster in the first six months of 2010 than at any other point in their history — did not minimize the problems he faced.
He said illiterate soldiers had complained about not being paid because they could not access the funds in the bank accounts set up for them. Paying the soldiers through bank accounts was an effort to discourage corruption inherent in a cash-based system.
Now there is the additional problem that the accounts set up to pay the army are all with the Kabul Bank, which last week faced a huge run of investor withdrawals and could collapse.
Mandatory literacy training is one of the changes Gen. Caldwell has introduced into the NATO training mission and illustrates the severity of the challenge it faces.
About 27,000 Afghan security personnel are receiving literacy training. That number is projected to grow to 50,000 by December and double again to 100,000 by June. More than 200 Afghan literacy teachers are on the payroll, and 1,000 are anticipated by the time the program reaches full capacity.
“We’re not trying to make high school graduates,” Gen. Caldwell said. “Our intent is to … bring them up perhaps to a first-grade, third-grade level.”
Gen. Caldwell’s command needs to recruit an additional 56,000 security personnel to meet the transition goal of a combined army and police strength of 305,000 by October 2011.
But he estimated that to meet that goal — given the high attrition rates for recruits — he will have to recruit and train 141,000 Afghans in the next 15 months, a number greater than the size of the entire army today.
“Losses from attrition … include desertions, deaths and low retention. They pose the greatest threat to both quantity and, for us, quality of the security force,” he said.
Italian army Brig. Gen. Carmelo Burgio, who is in charge of NATO’s police-training mission, noted the attrition rate for the police force.
“For every Afghan National Army soldier killed, we have three or four policemen killed,” he said.
He also lauded the much-criticized decision by Mr. Karzai to ban private security contractors and insist that all such work be done by government forces.
“The presence of the private security companies, who provide better salary” was an “issue” for retention, he said. Mr. Karzai’s decision, he said, “could slow down the attrition.”
Gen. Burgio also was frank about the scale of the training challenge, noting that the NATO training programs drug-tested all their recruits and had recently broken up a six-man drug-trafficking ring inside a training center.
He added that trainers also had uncovered a suspected Taliban who was attempting to join the program. “He was a Pakistani with forged [identity] documents [and] with a forged letter of recommendation,” Gen. Burgio said.
On the issue of the fight against corruption, Gen. Burgio, who has experience fighting organized crime in Italy, was blunt about the length of the commitment involved — transition deadlines aside.
“We need generations to solve the corruption problem,” he said, comparing it to the fight against organized crime. “Each generation lasts 20, 25 years. To solve the corruption problem, we need two or three generations.”