Success in Afghanistan Hinges on Country's Military Progress, Ability to Retain Soldiers

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- The strategy for eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, set to begin in July 2011, relies almost entirely on the strength of the country's own military progress.

On day two of exclusive access to U.S. and NATO top commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus, National Security correspondent Jennifer Griffin and the Fox News production team witnessed two, live-fire training missions conducted by some of Afghanistan's most elite fighters.

Standing on the mud roof of a mock Taliban compound south of Kabul, General Petraeus and the Fox News crew watched as Afghan Special Ops forces fired mortars and RPG's at the walls below. As the Afghan troops searched and raided the complex, one officer standing with Petraeus said that the team looked just as good as U.S. Marines he'd seen conduct the very same drills.

General Petraeus was equally pleased. "They are very impressive," he told Fox. "There's a certain look to individuals who deserve to be called special, and they have that look... as well as that skill."

Yet these elite units are few and far between and represent only a small portion of the overall Afghan security forces.

Lt. Gen. William Caldwell leads the entire NATO training mission and says although progress is being made, illiteracy and innumeracy among the force remain the biggest hurdles.

Caldwell described a recent incident where an Afghan Army unit came under attack, "They got into a firefight with the insurgents. They were taking casualties and they called in for support. They needed medical evacuation by helicopter to come in and take out their casualties. But nobody can read a map. Not one of these Afghan soldiers knew how to read a map. They knew the terrain, they knew the area, but they couldn't relay to... the helicopter gunships standing by ready to support them."

A lack of education among Afghan security forces also creates problems when it came time for them to collect pay. Caldwell explained that because corrupt police officials can't be trusted to pay their men in full, the U.S. came up with the idea of using ATMs. The problem was, he said, "soldiers and police officers couldn't understand their banks statements." The program failed.

Afghanistan is 80 percent illiterate, and those numbers are generally the same within the 254,000 men in the Afghan Army and police. Trainers are working to bring as many soldiers and police as they can to a 3rd grade reading level.

"Everything we do has to be a show and tell", Caldwell said. And it's not just about reading and writing. NATO trainers have to deal with the fact that most of the men have never driven a vehicle. "Day one of our five week driving course begins with how to open the door," Caldwell said.

NATO trainers are also dealing with the threat that the Taliban might be able to recruit soldiers that U.S and coalition forces have taken the time to train. Caldwell says the U.S. has increased the incentives to stay with the military. "It varies from place to place, but a day --Taliban could make four to 10 dollars."

In comparison Afghan soldiers and police make minimum wage at $165 per month, including hazardous pay for dangerous areas and increased pay for those who stay with the force longer.

At the end of the day, Caldwell said, keeping them in the force is the key to success.

Photo Credit: Fox News