WASHINGTON // A top US military commander in Afghanistan highlighted yesterday the successes and challenges of the effort to organise, equip and train the Afghan national security forces, saying "great progress" has been made but that "we have a long way to go".
Major Gen Robert Cone, commander of the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan, said 28,000 troops will have been added this year to the Afghan national army as it prepares, with the Afghan national police, to assume increasing responsibility for its own security even as insurgent attacks increase. In the past six months, the Afghan army has led about 60 per cent of the operations it has participated in and has proven itself an "effective fighting force", Major Gen Cone said. Still, only 20 battalions, or about one third, are fully prepared to operate independently, with only air support from coalition forces.
The army, which has been training under US direction for five years, has about 68,000 troops in the field and 11,000 in training. It will eventually expand to about 134,000 troops, including its training base. "The [Afghan] ministry of defence has many challenges ahead of it," Major Gen Cone said, speaking via a live satellite hook-up from Kabul. "They are expanding rapidly while fighting a tough counterinsurgency, but I am confident that the ministry will meet and exceed our expectations."
The national police, whose training began only about a year ago, has lagged behind the military in development. The force accounts for 56 per cent of the number of those killed in action, more than twice the rate of the army and coalition forces. A US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in June found that, despite an investment of more than US$6billion (Dh22bn), not one of the 433 Afghan police units assessed by the defence department was found to be fully capable of performing its duties. More than three quarters were given the lowest readiness rating.
Major Gen Cone said the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan and the Afghan interior ministry have jointly retrained more than 22,000 police, or in excess of one quarter of the force, in the past year, and that a new programme to retrain the Afghan border police is under way. "We're very pleased with our progress but we have more to do," he said. Among the most substantial challenges overall, he said, are developing so-called "human capital"; building basic "systems" and infrastructure in a country that has been devastated by decades of war, and fighting a culture of corruption.
"When you're building an organisation like an army or a police force, human capital in terms of people with the long-term experience and professional education is really the longest pole in the tent in terms of development," he explained. "And so, given the fact that 30 years of war, a high level of illiteracy, that is really the area we attack most aggressively. "We're not reconstructing Afghanistan, we are constructing Afghanistan. Essentially if I want to increase the capacity of training policemen, let's say, I literally have to scrape a police training centre out of the desert and build that facility from scratch."
The GAO report cited as other impediments a shortage of police mentors, lack of equipment, problems with police pay and attacks by insurgents. Major Gen Cone declined to give a timeline for when Afghan security forces are expected to reach full readiness, in part because more personnel are continually being added. But he said it takes at least 18 months from the time a unit forms to the time it can stand on its own.
"I would argue that Afghan learning that takes place in these operations is more important perhaps than really the outcome of any single engagement, because it's really not in doubt that we are successful," he said. "But the point is what are the Afghans learning and are they better tomorrow than they were today in terms of the operations." An increasingly emboldened insurgency has prompted Barack Obama, the incoming US president, who takes office on Jan 20, to pledge additional forces in Afghanistan. He said repeatedly during the campaign that he would make Afghanistan the central front in the "war on terror", and criticised the Bush administration for "taking its eye off the ball" and getting distracted by Iraq.
Mr Obama spoke with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, by telephone last weekend, the first time they had talked since Mr Obama's election. In a statement, Mr Karzai's office said Mr Obama had pledged to increase US co-operation in the effort to stabilise the country. "The president-elect of the United States considers the campaign against terrorism and bringing security to Afghanistan, the region and the world a priority of his government," the statement said.