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GAO: Army Growth Hampered By Staffing Shortages, Lack Of Long-Term Analysis

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WASHINGTON -- The Afghan National Army (ANA) is growing, and getting it fully staffed and trained is key to the pace of U.S. withdrawal. The international community aims to fully transfer responsibility for security operations over to Afghan security forces by 2014. But a new government report released on Thursday finds that the ANA has a long way to go, beset by a shortage of trainers, high attrition rates, trouble staffing leadership positions and a lack of determination of long-term costs.

The U.S. commitment to the ANA is significant. Agencies have allocated $20 billion since 2002 and requested $7.5 billion more for fiscal year 2011. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), however, found that neither the Defense Department nor NATO "has completed an analysis of ANA sustainment costs. Such analysis is important given that, as of January 2010, the International Monetary Fund projected that it will take until at least 2023 for the Afghan government to raise sufficient revenues to cover its operating expenses, including those related to the army, highlighting Afghanistan's continued dependence on external sources of funding." More from the report:

Given the $20 billion the United States has already invested in ANA development and the additional $7.5 billion planned, it is vital that decision makers have information on future funding requirements. Without clarification of what additional ANA growth is needed, if any, and the associated funding requirements, as well as estimates of future ANA sustainment costs, decision makers will continue to lack key information to guide future investments and weigh potential alternatives.

President Obama has said the United States will begin to withdraw troops in July 2011 with the goal of fully transferring responsibility to the Afghan security forces by 2014. The GAO found that, while the international community has made "important progress in accelerating ANA growth," as of September 2010, not a single ANA unit was considered as capable of carrying out its mission independent of coalition assistance. Two-thirds were assessed as "effective with limited coalition support."

Major contributors to these problems include filling critical leadership and coalition training spots, with 18 percent of the total instructor positions lacking commitments:

At the January 2010 London conference, the international community committed to funding 171,600 Afghan soldiers and 134,000 policemen by October 2011 -- a total of more than 300,000 agents.

When Obama announced in December 2009 that he would be deploying another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he intended the additional manpower to help train the ANA and Afghan National Police (ANP). On several occasions, the international community has reaffirmed its commitment to build up the security forces in Afghanistan, often increasing the size of the commitment. In many instances, according to the GAO, the new size goal for the ANA was announced "before the existing force size goal had before the existing size goal had been met."

Several senators, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) -- who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan -- are encouraging the President to support a military-backed plan to fund more forces. The proposal would expand the ANA and ANP by a combined 78,000 on top of their standing targets. Afghan security forces grew by approximately 70,000 in 2010.

"I urged the president strongly and with very direct words that this needed to be done to enhance the possibilities of success of our mission and to speed up the reduction of our forces so that that important part of our mission, which is the buildup of Afghan forces to take responsibility for their own security, can be improved and enhanced," said Levin, recounting a recent conversation he had with Obama.

The GAO's recommendations for ensuring successful ANA growth include clarifying the extent to which the army may have to grow beyond its currently stated goal, identifying the funding that would be required for such growth and putting together detailed estimates of future ANA sustainment costs.