Afghan force readiness a year off
Trainer’s estimate hints of problem for US exit plans
WASHINGTON — A senior US commander said yesterday that he could not predict when Afghanistan might take control of its own security and warned that NATO needs at least another year to recruit and train enough soldiers and police officers.
The assessment by Lieutenant General Bill Caldwell, the head of NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan, further dims US hopes that the planned US withdrawal next year will be significant in size.
President Obama has said that troops will begin pulling out in July 2011, with the size and pace of withdrawal depending on security conditions. Defense officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have said they believe next summer’s pullout would be modest.
In a Pentagon briefing, Caldwell told reporters that Afghan army and police forces won’t reach sufficient numbers until Oct. 31, 2011, three months after Obama’s deadline to start US withdrawals.
NATO has set the goal of creating an Afghan military and police force of 305,600 personnel: 171,600 army and 134,000 police. There are currently 249,500 personnel: 134,000 army and 115,500 police.
But Caldwell predicted that desertion and injury rates are so high among Afghan forces that NATO will have to recruit and train 141,000 people to ensure it has the 56,000 additional personnel needed next fall.
Attacks by insurgents killed five foreign troops in Afghanistan yesterday, including two Americans, two French marines, and a Hungarian soldier. The attacks came in the north, south, and east of the war-torn country, the military alliance said.
Because Afghanistan is still scrambling to recruit and train its security forces, Caldwell said, there is no accurate estimate on when Kabul might take control of even the more peaceful parts of the country.
“It doesn’t mean in small isolated pockets that they can’t have the lead with coalition’’ support, Caldwell said of Afghan forces. “But to say that they’ll be able to do much more before October of next year would be stretching it, only because we haven’t finished the development of their force.’’
Caldwell also said it is likely the United States and international community will have to pay for that force for some time, even after NATO troops leave. “The US has made an enduring commitment to be supportive,’’ he said.
As was the case in Iraq, the training and equipping of Afghan security forces is considered the linchpin in the US exit strategy. However, the effort has been particularly difficult in Afghanistan, where illiteracy rates are high, corruption is rampant, and there is little banking infrastructure to ensure troops get paid.
Last June, Gates predicted that Afghan forces could take control of security in some areas by the end of this year. But diplomats in the United States and Europe have since said the first hand-over may not occur until early next year.
A NATO conference in Lisbon in November would decide which areas would be handed over first.
Caldwell said that notable gains have been made in the past nine months. For example, he said that the size of the Afghan army and police has more than doubled from levels in previous years.
Caldwell said that recruiting and retention have been aided by pay increases, particularly for Afghan police, as well as a “new sense of urgency’’ by the Afghan government to boost recruitment.
The United States also has sent more police and military trainers to Afghanistan, mostly fixing a severe shortfall that dominated NATO meetings last fall, Caldwell said.
Yesterday’s deaths bring the number of foreign forces killed in Afghanistan this month to 47, including 30 Americans. No additional information was given about the latest American casualties.
France’s Defense Ministry said a lieutenant and corporal from the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment were killed in a gun battle in the Bedraou Valley in the eastern province of Kapisa. Three other French troops were wounded, it said.
The deaths bring the number of French troops killed in the Afghan war to 47. The French contingent to the NATO-led international force numbers about 4,000.
Hungary’s Defense Ministry said its soldier was killed after his convoy was hit by a blast and then strafed by gunfire from all sides. The attack occurred 12 miles northwest of the town of Pul-e Khumri in the northern province of Baghlan.
The new deaths occurred amid a particularly bloody period for international troops, with 66 Americans killed in July, the deadliest month for the United States in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion that overthrew the hard-line Islamist Taliban government.