Tonight and tomorrow, the CBS Evening News is broadcasting from Afghanistan. I'm here to interview and travel with General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Yesterday, after we landed in Kabul, I met with Lt. General Bill Caldwell, the man in charge of the NATO training mission. We got to meet two Afghan pilots who are heading to Columbus, Mississippi, to train. They already had to learn English and the principles of aeronautics, and went to two military schools here in Afghanistan.
Their commanding general told me the first thing they have to teach these recruits (many of them are not the pilots) is how to open a car door. They've never driven. Then they have to give them a first grade education in reading because most are illiterate.
I wondered if these two men I met were afraid of attacks against them, but they said they are not and that they're proud of the work they're doing. They feel they need U.S. support to give their country a chance.
Lt. General Caldwell explained that they attract recruits by paying them what they'd get from the Taliban, $140 a month, and that hiring additional trainers has helped them be ahead of schedule on training military and police recruits.
As for combat readiness, the Lt. General said they still have to work on leadership skills before these "very committed and dedicated" guys can go out on their own. There is apparently a drug problem among recruits, and I was told drug use has been found in about 10 percent of the police.
They are trying to change the culture, and to remove infiltrators. The program just kicked out a guy they discovered was from Pakistan, taking photos in places he shouldn't have been. He's in the Afghan judicial system now.
Also, the training mission is taking eye scans, facial photos and finger prints and asking for letters of recommendation for recruits. This, and going on joint patrols, helps mitigate the trust factor which can be a real issue.
The mission is bullish about where they are, but in terms of "they stand up so we can stand down" readiness, that remains to be seen. So far they've trained 240,000 security forces and they're shooting for more than 300,000.
It may be 2016 before the Afghan Air Force can take over, though a transition will be made much earlier. Training a pilot takes two to five years, so I guess it makes sense.
But will the American people have the stomach for that?
General David Petraeus, interviewed by CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, in Afghanistan, August 19, 2010.