KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan’s army and police, vital elements of the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency strategy for the war, are on pace to hit their growth targets months ahead of schedule, according to a senior U.S. general here.
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who runs NATO’s training mission, said in an interview that better-than-expected recruiting and declining rates of attrition meant that Afghanistan’s security forces should grow to 305,000 personnel before their Oct. 31, 2011, deadline. That, in turn, could make it easier for the U.S.-led coalition to begin handing security responsibility for certain areas of the country over to Afghanistan’s police and army.
“They’re moving much faster,” Caldwell said of the Afghan security forces. “They were months early this year, so if they stay close to that glide path they’ll reach their targets early next year as well."
Caldwell has one of the most important missions in the entire war. The U.S. exit strategy for Afghanistan depends on building Afghan army and police forces capable of battling the Taliban and holding areas of the country that have been cleared of militants by NATO forces. Rapidly expanding the size and skills of those Afghan forces is a core part of the White House’s stated goal of beginning to withdraw some U.S. military personnel next July.
Since 2002, the U.S. and its allies have spent more than $27 billion to recruit and train Afghan security personnel, roughly half of all the money earmarked for rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of conflict, and the coalition plans to spend roughly $20 billion more on the effort.
But despite those vast expenditures, the Afghan forces have yet to develop into reliable allies. The army and police remain plagued by endemic rates of illiteracy, drug use, and absenteeism. In June, a report by a government auditor concluded that the Pentagon's system for evaluating the Afghan forces was so deeply flawed that it was virtually impossible to get a true sense of their abilities.
For the moment, though, the training efforts are going significantly faster than expected, a rare dose of good news in a war that is by many measures continuing to deteriorate. As of late September, there were more than 139,000 Afghan soldiers and just over 120,000 Afghan police either fielded or in training.
Last November, by contrast, there were just 97,000 soldiers and 95,000 police officers fielded or in training. NATO data shows the new recruits are also more literate and skilled in marksmanship than their predecessors.
"The train-and-equip mission has now been injected with steroids,” Gen. David Petraeus, the top allied commander here, said in an interview.
Caldwell noted in the interview that in September 2009, the Afghan army recruited 800 people while losing roughly 2,000 to attrition. This past September, the army grew by 2,000 even when the attrition numbers were taken into account, he said.
“The two forces have sustained an average [net growth] of about 5,600 a month,” Caldwell said. “They turned the recruiting upside down almost overnight and they’ve kept it going.”
Caldwell and others in the command attributed the turnaround to sharp increases in the salaries being offered to Afghan security personnel. Afghan soldiers had long earned more than Afghan police, but salaries for equivalent ranks have been equalized. Afghan troops deployed to dangerous areas of the country receive additional hazard pay in an effort to cut down on the numbers of personnel who desert to avoid being hurt or killed.
Still, attrition remains a serious concern for both the army and police, particularly among units operating in restive southern Afghanistan. The attrition levels within the three Afghan army corps fighting in the south are in some cases hitting an annualized rate of 45 percent, NATO officials said. For the army as a whole, by contrast, the annual attrition rate is about 24 percent.
The attrition rates for the elite police units operating in southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, are nearly double those of the overall Afghan police force.
“Attrition is unacceptably high still among those units that are operating in the south,” Caldwell said. “You can’t operate that way -- no business would ever accept that kind of return on its investment.”
As part of a broad push to get the attrition numbers down, Caldwell said the NATO command has begun offering Afghan troops free flights out of Kabul when they’re set to go on leave. The effort is meant to prevent Afghan security personnel from simply deserting when it came time for them to go on leave out of frustration with how difficult and dangerous it was for them to make it home from their deployments. So far, roughly 6,000 Afghans have taken advantage of the flights.
The NATO command is also working to build esprit de corps within the Afghan forces by giving them better weaponry and safer vehicles. The Afghans had traditionally driven around in Ford Ranger pickup trucks, which offered absolutely no protection against the roadside bombs that are the insurgent weapon of choice here.
In recent months, however, the U.S. has given Afghanistan more than 7,700 armored Humvees to better protect its soldiers and police. The U.S. has also given the Afghan army more than 117,000 M16 and M4 rifles, which are considerably more accurate that then AK47s they’d traditionally been using.
Officers on Caldwell’s staff noted that training Afghan forces to lead the fight against the Taliban was far cheaper than continuing to rely on U.S. and NATO personnel. Lt. Col. Brett Sylvia, Caldwell’s executive officer, said the command plans to spend $20 billion in less than two years to speed the growth of the Afghan police and army. The U.S., by contrast, spends more than $7 billion per month on its operations here.
“If we could get the Afghans to take the lead, then we could start winding down our presence and the costs will come down,” Sylvia said. “It’s more cost-effective.”