BRUSSELS – Attrition rates in Afghan security forces remain stubbornly high, but there is no shortage of recruits so NATO still expects to meet its goal of having 305,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen by October, a general in the alliance said Wednesday.
The expansion of the army and police is a critical element in NATO's exit strategy from Afghanistan. This summer, the alliance plans to hand over responsibility for security in the first provinces to Afghan control. The hand-over process will run through 2014, when international forces are scheduled to end their combat role.
A departing senior U.N. official on Wednesday highlighted the problems Afghan security forces face, saying that security in the country is the worst in a decade and the world body is virtually shut out of two-fifths of the country.
Robert Watkins said Afghanistan's security is "at its lowest point since the departure of the Taliban" after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. He said the United Nations rarely can enter 40 percent of the country, including Kandahar and southeast regions where it must negotiate special access from all sides.
Watkins, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's deputy special representative in Afghanistan, is transferring to a similar post in Lebanon.
U.S. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, said the Afghan army loses about 32 percent of its personnel each year. In the police, that number is nearly 23 percent.
Still, Caldwell said the NATO training effort remains on track to reach the goal of 305,000 soldiers and policemen by October because there is no shortfall of recruits for both the army and police.
"We have built enough capacity that would enable us to continue to grow, but also to replenish any attrition that may take place," he told reporters.
Attrition includes all service members leaving the security forces, including those who have completed their terms of service or left due to medical or other reasons, losses in combat and desertions.
Caldwell said that recruits have been flocking into both the police and army. About 10 percent of those are being turned away after security vetting, or for other reasons.
Just 14 percent of the recruits were literate, he said. The training mission has therefore launched a massive program to teach them to read and write on a third-grade level, the international standard for basic literacy, he said.
But despite successes in the training program, the overall rate of loss has remained about the same over the past three years, Caldwell said.
During 2010, NATO officers said, the Afghan security forces recruited a total of 111,000 men. But at the end of the year overall numerical strength had increased by only 70,000.
Just 2 percent of the attrition occurred in army and police training units, Caldwell said. But 98 percent of those leaving came from units in the field.
Caldwell attributed the high rate of loss of trained personnel to the lack of leaders in the middle levels of the Afghan army and police, especially in areas of high-intensity operations.
"They're either continuously engaged in counterinsurgent operations without a break, or the leadership is not taking care of that," he said, adding that the training and development of mid-level officers and NCOs is critical to reducing attrition levels in specific units.
Critics have said many of the men deserting the security forces — often with their weapons — are defecting to the Taliban and providing the insurgents with trained new fighters.
Afghan government officials have said they would like their army and police to grow to a total of 378,000 by 2014. But the international community, which is bankrolling the forces, hasn't agreed to that.
Associated Press correspondents Patrick Quinn in Kabul and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.