Despite Growing in Size, Afghan Forces Not Yet Prepared to Take On Security Duties

Despite predictions from Defense Secretary Robert Gates just two months ago that Afghan forces would be ready to take control of security in some areas of the war-torn country by the end of this year -- a senior U.S. commander on Monday sounded far less confident.

Lieutenant General William Caldwell - Commander for the NATO training mission in Afghanistan -- refused to speculate at a Defense Department briefing when any such handover might occur, and cautioned that there are no short-cuts.

"We have not even finished building the Afghan national army, or the police forces or the air force at this point. And in fact all of the key enablers as we call them in the military, things like logistics, maintenance, transportation, intelligence, none of those organizations have been yet built and brought on line and connected with the current fielded force."

He added, "Although you may have elements out there today that can operate very much in the lead they can't operate independently yet because they don't have the enablers that would support them, they still require that from the coalition forces."

The American-led strategy in Afghanistan relies on training enough local forces to let the Afghans take over their own security. Caldwell told reporters he hoped to be done building the Afghan National Security Force by the end of October 2011 - three months after President Obama plans to have begun a U.S. troop withdrawal.

Caldwell pointed to a number of stumbling blocks his team has encountered - starting with a staggering 14-18 percent literacy rate for entry level soldiers and police officers across the entire Afghan force.

"How do you expect a soldier to account for their weapon if they can't even read the serial number?"

Caldwell explained that initial U.S. efforts were not concerned with teaching the Afghan recruits to read and write. But now?

"What we have found is that if we are going to professionalize this force, we have to take on literacy. By June of 2011 we will continuously have about one hundred thousand army and police recruits in fulltime literacy training programs."

Caldwell added, "We are not trying to make high school graduates, our intent is to give them enough so that they have the ability to do certain key things for the professionalism of the force, bring them up to perhaps a first grade, third grade level."

Last week 90 out of 100 soldiers at a base in northern Afghanistan claimed they hadn't been paid for months. But Caldwell said, in an effort to cut down on corruption, the soldiers had been paid in electronic fund transfers instead of cash, and they couldn't read their own bank statements.

Another challenge facing General Caldwell -- losses from attrition.

"These losses include desertions, deaths and low retention. They pose the greatest threat to both quantity and quality of the Afghan National Security Force."

In an effort to put the daunting task into perspective, Caldwell says, "To grow the additional 56,000 that is currently needed to meet the October 31, 2011 goal of 305,000, we will need to recruit and train 141,000 soldiers and police."

Despite the dreary outlook - Caldwell did have some encouraging numbers.

In the past nine months the growth of the Afghan National Security Force has more than doubled the average of any previous year, with the current count at 58,000. The growth in the first half of 2010 is larger than in any year in its history.

"The growth has been so dramatic that both the ANA (Afghan National Army) and ANP (Afghan National Police) have exceeded their 2010 growth goals about three months ahead of schedule."