WASHINGTON -- U.S. and allied military trainers are making "significant'' progress on the Obama administration's "exit strategy" from Afghanistan, a senior American general said on Monday.
But Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell said the plan -- to train Afghan soldiers and police to replace the 100,000 American troops now serving there -- is still struggling with high attrition and corruption. It has also been plagued by a surge of attacks on allied troops and assassinations of Afghanistan officials by rogue Afghan police and soldiers.
"I don't want to mislead anybody that there aren't ample challenges ahead," said Caldwell, who leads the NATO command that has trained just over 296,000 Afghan army troops and police, at a forum organized by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. But he added, the Afghan security forces will "absolutely'' be ready to take the lead in combat operations by 2014, the deadline set by NATO.
The effort has lagged behind for years because of a shortage of American and European trainers and a lack of sufficient funding. Then, two years ago, the Obama administration began pouring money into accelerated training, which is paying off with dozens of Afghan combat battalions now engaged in combat alongside American troops.
But as the White House debates the size of a promised U.S. troop reduction from Afghanistan in July, it's clear the Afghan forces aren't ready to take over in any significant capacity: Only one of the 84 infantry battalions that NATO has trained and fielded is fully ready to operate independently, Caldwell said.
"If we want a fully trained force ready to take the lead'' in combat operations, "we have to have patience -- and an enduring commitment," Caldwell said. Unlike the Soviets, who trained Afghan troops and then abandoned them, "we have to make this last."
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said repeatedly that -- despite the killing of Osama bin Laden last month -- the United States must keep up the pressure on al Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents. "I think we've made headway on our major goals, which have been to disrupt al Qaeda and try and defeat them. Clearly the killing of bin Laden was a big deal in that," said Gates, who is due to retire at the end of June, to a soldier at Combat Outpost Andar in Ghazni Province. "We've still got a ways to go and I just think we shouldn't let up on the gas too much at least for the next few months."
Despite years of U.S. training and mentoring, Afghan security forces still suffer from deep problems ranging from drug abuse and illiteracy -- only one in 10 recruits can read at a third grade level -- to corruption and attrition. Approximately 30 percent of Afghanistan’s combat troops desert each year, Caldwell said, although about 1,000 a month eventually come back to their units. Among police, attrition is about 18 percent a year -- a vast improvement, he said.
With the last combat battalion about to graduate from training, the NATO command is accelerating the recruiting and training of the critical units that will provide communications, logistics, engineering, medical and intelligence support to the combat units, as well as Afghan air force flight crews and support personnel.
As combat-trained Afghan forces have taken to the field, there have been a surge in attacks by armed Afghan soldiers and police on allied troops, most recently in April when an Afghan pilot opened fire and killed eight American military trainers and an American contractor.
There has also been a rise in assassinations of Afghan officials carried out by men in Afghan army or police uniforms -- either insurgents posing as security troops or actual infiltrators. There have been 25 such attacks in the past year, Caldwell said, resulting in a "serious'' erosion of trust between Afghan security forces and the U.S. and allied troops who often share military bases and combat missions with them.
In an effort to fight infiltration, Caldwell said counterintelligence agents are being inserted into Afghan army and police units to uncover insurgents or sympathizers.