KABUL – President Barack Obama has his troop surge. Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces have theirs.
While the new U.S. war strategy was unveiled with worldwide fanfare, Afghan's defense force has been quietly planning its own troop buildup to break the Taliban's tightening grip on swathes of the nation. The Afghan surge is the one to watch because the success of Obama's new war plan is inextricably hinged to Afghanistan's ability to recruit, train and retain security forces that can eventually take the lead in defending the nation.
Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday that he's already assigned one brigade to a new three-brigade seventh corps of the Afghan National Army. Corps 215 Maiwand is based in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah, where most of the 30,000 U.S. reinforcements will be deployed.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says the Afghans have promised to send 5,000 members of the new corps to partner with British troops in Helmand. Wardak insists that will be achieved with ease. He said he's already begun staffing the command's second brigade.
Moreover, he said nearly 44 additional companies of Afghan soldiers are being added to battalions in the south and east. Another Afghan commando battalion, which will graduate in January, is also headed to Helmand — the scene of a major weekend offensive by 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan soldiers.
"We are bringing the strength level of every unit in the south to 117 percent of its authorized strength so there will be a significant increase in the number of troops," Wardak said in his office at the Ministry of Defense.
Building up the Afghan army, plagued by inefficiency, a lack of trainers and corruption, is a precursor to a U.S. troop pullout. While Obama set July 2011 as the date for the beginning of a withdrawal, he said it would happen "taking into account conditions on the ground."
That caveat was what Afghan leaders needed to hear.
"It is in the speech," Wardak said. "I don't believe the international community will just leave us like they did once before — after all these sacrifices. This enemy is not only terrorizing Afghanistan, it is terrorizing the whole international community. The nature of the threat is such that no one country will be able to deal with it."
Initially, the size of the Afghan army was scheduled to swell from 85,000 to 134,000 by 2013. That target now is expected to be reached earlier — by Oct. 31, 2011.
"We are increasing our level of recruitment and there are going to be improvements in retention," he said. "We are going to go at a very fast speed."
However, even the defense minister acknowledges that 134,000 will not be enough. He agrees with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who has recommended a 240,000-member Afghan army.
Getting there will be a steep uphill battle, says retired. Marine Col. Jeff Haynes, who in 2008 headed a command that advised the Afghan National Army.
"The rapid expansion of the Afghan National Army will likely undermine the fragile success that has been achieved to date," Haynes wrote in an essay on the Web site defpro.com. "It will also set back, not hasten, its assumption of the lead role in defeating a resurgent Taliban. Unfortunately, too many of the people who are developing Afghan security strategy have never worked with the Afghan National Army and do not have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.
"The reality is that ANA effectiveness is already suffering because of an inadequate number of competent leaders and staff officers. ... Growing the army too fast will only exacerbate this leadership deficit."
Candace Rondeaux, senior Afghan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the army is facing a a shortage of military trainers and is fighting endemic corruption. The question is how many troops can the Afghan government sustain in an aid-dependent country where the annual budget is under $10 billion.
"If the goal is to build a quality force of some 134,000 Afghan army soldiers by the end of 2011, then the addition of some 4,000 U.S. military trainers under the new troop levels will certainly help," she told the Council on Foreign Relations Web site. "But when it comes to expanding the Afghan National Army to 250,000 ... then stress on the system is inevitable and may blunt the positive impact that extra U.S. troops will have in the long term."