POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 13, 2010
KABUL, Afghanistan » Long a lagging priority, the plan to produce many more highly trained Afghan troops is moving this fall at a rapid pace. Two main training sites - the Kabul Military Training Center, used principally by the Afghan army, and the Central Training Center, used by the police - have become bustling bases, packed with trainers and recruits, and there is a sense among the officers that they are producing better soldiers than before.
The military center has been graduating 1,400 newly trained soldiers every two weeks, as the Obama administration, eager to show progress in a slow-going war, has devoted more trainers and money to the effort.
NATO officials hope that the clear changes in the training, both in output and atmosphere, are grounds for a measure of optimism in a war that has frustrated those waging it and provoked increasing opposition at home.
The ratio of instructors to students has gone from one for every 79 trainees in 2009 to one for every 29, officers at the center say, suggesting that the new police officers and soldiers are getting more attention than in years past. The soldiers are paid better and desert less often, officials say.
New Afghan infantry battalions, each with roughly 800 soldiers, are regularly leaving the capital for service in the war, sometimes making two or three battalions a month. Regional training centers are also holding more sessions, and new bases - including a flight school for Afghanistan's nascent air force - are soon to be built.
The question now is whether these new forces will allow NATO and the Afghan government to reverse the insurgency's momentum and begin reducing the Western presence in the country.
If so, will it happen quickly enough for a U.S. public weary of the war? Or will the promise of these fresh troops also be undermined by desertion, poor leadership and the established pattern of leaving much of the most dangerous work to Western hands?
Any answer must navigate a pair of remarkably different pictures of the war.
Away from the capital, in the rural areas where the insurgency rages, the Afghan military has not performed well. In provinces where the Taliban are strongest and the fighting is most pitched, the common view is that the Afghan army and the police have been disappointing.
At the small-unit level, Western troops and journalists have documented their corruption, drug use, mediocre or poor fighting skills and patterns of lackluster commitment, including an unwillingness to patrol regularly and in sizable numbers, or to stand watch in remote outposts.
At the higher levels, Western military officers often describe patronage, favoritism and an absence of managerial acumen, rooted in part in the pervasive culture of corruption and in widespread illiteracy. (Now, 14 percent of the combined force can read or write - at the third-grade level.)
There is also a strong worry about Taliban infiltration into the ranks, especially among the police.
In contrast to the field, however, at the training bases the newly formed forces are clearly improving.
Since last year, when President Barack Obama's plan dedicated more resources to Afghan development, the Pentagon has pursued what is in theory a simple, if expensive, approach: to recruit and field forces quickly, and then, over time, to improve their fighting and managerial skills.
Enormous resources have been dedicated to the effort. The numbers indicate that the first step is under way.
In June 2009, after more than seven years of war, the United States had helped Afghanistan field a combined army and police force of about 170,000 members. Since then, the combined force has grown by half that size again - by more than 86,000 troops.
Today the Afghan army has 136,000 members and the police about 120,000. Within a year, the combined forces are projected to grow by 50,000 more people.
Raw personnel numbers are only one measure. The United States is simultaneously buying and issuing new weapons, vehicles and communications gear, building barracks, classrooms and logistics depots, and developing a network of language labs to nudge the force toward literacy.
It is also underwriting programs intended to expand Afghan military and police capabilities, including training bomb- and drug-detection dogs for the border police, training pilots for the small fleet of Afghan helicopters and transport aircraft, and opening so-called branch schools to focus on the technical development of Afghans with specialized military skills.
"Basically, there is a big change in training, the quality of the training," said Brig. Gen. Aminullah Patyani, commander of the Kabul Military Training Center.
This month, for example, the Afghan Defense Ministry opened a school for artillerists. Some of these programs show clear signs of progress, including scheduled flights with Afghan pilots and helicopters to transfer wounded Afghan soldiers from Kandahar to Kabul.
"We're getting to the point where we have reliable, repeatable Afghan Air Force missions," said Brig. Gen. David W. Allvin, who commands the NATO effort to develop an Afghan aviation capability.
Col. John G. Ferrari, a deputy commander of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, spoke of an "inevitability factor," in which local security forces, in theory and if trained properly, rise in quantity, skill and state of equipment, sharply tilting the war in the government's favor.
For that to be the case, the Pentagon must overcome a persistent problem in the Afghan security forces: attrition. Official estimates put attrition across the force at roughly 3 percent each month. Attrition is a powerful drain that makes growth difficult. Police officers and soldiers simply disappear, even as replacements flow in.
For this reason, for the army to grow by 36,000 more soldiers, the government must recruit and train 83,000 Afghans, according to projections released by NATO.
Similarly, for the police to reach the hoped-for increase of 14,000, the government must train 50,000 more officers. This drives up costs to Westerners paying the bill.
The training mission in Afghanistan also labors under a legacy of unfulfilled past promises, inadequate training even in basic skills like marksmanship and driving military vehicles, and a pattern of overstating how ready or skilled the forces are.
Early this year, the Pentagon and senior Afghan and U.S. officers in Kabul insisted that the complex operation to re-establish a government presence in Marjah, a Taliban stronghold, was "Afghan led."
It was not. And many Afghan units, by the accounts of many Americans present, performed poorly. Some units openly shirked combat duty - refusing to patrol, or sending a bare minimum of soldiers on U.S. patrols, sometimes only a pair of soldiers to accompany a U.S. platoon. The remaining Afghans stayed behind, lounging in the relative safety of outposts the Americans secured.
In the operations under way in Kandahar, reports continue to indicate that U.S. forces are almost always in the lead.
A formal Pentagon assessment of Afghan readiness is expected in December, and under Obama's plan, U.S. troops could begin a gradual drawdown next summer.
Even as these deadlines approach, many officers have spoken of managing expectations.
Brig. Gen. Carmelo Burgio, the Italian officer who commands the police development effort, said that NATO had made practical steps toward police competence, and that training had improved.
But developing a well-rounded police officer, much less a well-rounded force, takes many years - perhaps much longer than the United States and other NATO nations have the patience for.
"We believe we are on the right path," Burgio said. "We need time. Without time, without patience, it is impossible."