With the Obama administration set to decide in July about the pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell recently sent a team to Iraq to conduct some anthropology on Iraq’s security forces. As the commander of NATO’s Afghan training mission, Caldwell wanted to capture the lessons learned from readying Iraqi forces to protect their own country four years after the troop surge there—the better to gauge his own progress in helping to build the Afghan security forces. For the second time in recent years, U.S. commanders are realizing that their ticket home from a costly and unpopular war has to be stamped by local forces of uncertain capability.
The numbers themselves are encouraging. In the past year and a half, NATO has adopted an accelerated schedule to train, equip, and field an additional 100,000 Afghan soldiers and police, bringing the size of the combined force to nearly 300,000, with an ultimate goal of 352,000 by October 2012. That compares favorably with the 348,000 Iraqi soldiers and police trained and equipped by mid-2007, in the midst of the Bush administration’s surge, on the way to a goal of 535,000. As early as August, NATO officials expect to field the full complement of Afghan infantry combat units.
But a basic lesson from Iraq is that without an institutional and support infrastructure, it’s hard to sustain those forces—and building infrastructure is a much more time-consuming task. “Soldiers are important, but institutions and support systems are the key to creating Afghan security forces that will endure,” Caldwell recently declared at the Brookings Institution. That effort will require making tough reforms in the Defense (military) and Interior (police) ministries; developing a good military-education system; and creating combat support units to provide logistical, medical, communications, intelligence, engineering, and airpower functions.
And despite a decade of war and more than $40 billion invested in Afghanistan’s army and police, officials concede that the work is just beginning in earnest. Afghan troops remain “almost exclusively dependent on [NATO] for critical support such as route clearing, artillery, and combat engineering. Those support systems and units are just in their initial stages of development,” Caldwell said. He estimated that the Afghan security forces will be dependent on NATO training and support until at least 2016 or ’17.
That reality may not sit well with a war-weary American public, but it is in keeping with the pace of training in Iraq. Following the Iraq template, NATO has 500 advisers in the Defense and Interior ministries. Trainers have also opened 12 branch schools to teach skills such as combat engineering and military aviation; they have standardized the training; and have begun building the depots and maintenance centers that are the foundation of any military logistics system.
As was the case in Iraq, NATO officials have also tried to speed up the creation of professional police forces, a linchpin of counterinsurgency operations. They doubled entry-level pay, extended a basic training course (often ignored in the past) from six to eight weeks, and equipped the national police with the first 1,000 of an anticipated 5,000 armored Humvee trucks. Caldwell increased the number of civilian police advisers on his staff from zero to 50. He has also fought two persistent problems since 2009: a 70 percent attrition rate and a 90 percent illiteracy rate among recruits. Today, the Afghan army’s attrition rate has dropped to 30 percent (and is trending downward). Each recruit receives two hours of daily instruction in reading, writing, and math.
Building an army virtually from scratch is as much an art as a science. No one can predict with certainty when the Afghan security forces will be ready to stand on their own. But if Iraq is any guide, there should come a “Basra moment” in the next few years, when new institutions come on line, Afghan forces continue to grow in quantity as well as quality, and their confidence rises along with their esprit de corps. Those trends gelled in an Iraqi-planned operation in March 2008, when Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki felt confident enough to deploy his forces hundreds of miles to the south, in Basra, to fight the Shiite militias that controlled the city. The Iraqis still had help from their American advisers, but they fought, they triumphed, and, in a very real sense, they never looked back.
“Basra was the turning point, because it showed that Maliki and the political leadership had enough confidence in Iraqi forces to deploy them on a semi-independent operation, which increased his legitimacy by showing the Iraqi people that the government was beating the insurgency,” said retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who led the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq at the time. The Iraqi security forces followed up with successful missions in Mosul and in Baghdad’s Sadr City.
Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai has yet to show that level of confidence, Dubik believes that the coalition’s gains against the Taliban in the south over the past year, coupled with the continued growth of the Afghan security forces, could change his calculations at some point. “The metrics I would use to judge progress are thus simple,” Dubik said. “Are Afghan forces continuing to fight? Are they growing? And do Afghan political leaders show more confidence in using their security forces? If the answer is yes to those three questions, you’ve probably created a winning dynamic.” And only then can the trainees stamp Americans’ return ticket.
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This article appears in the June 11, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.