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NATO Drawdown in Afghanistan Poses Challenges for Afghan Military

The international community is starting to draw the combat phase of its mission in Afghanistan to a close, with international troops this week beginning to transfer security control to their Afghan counterparts. A key component of the security transition involves the training of Afghan forces.

Afghans are looking to the future as NATO security forces this week began the process of handing over seven districts to Afghan authority.

Certain parts of Afghanistan that have had little insurgent activity or are considered relatively safe will now be controlled and protected by the country's own security forces.

The new commander of U.S. and NATO Forces in Afghanistan, Marine Lt. General John Allen, spoke at the handover ceremony in Lashkar Gah, the town in Helmand province that has seen some of the nearly 10-year-old war's worst fighting.

He said it is now up to Afghans to safeguard the nation. "This means it will be Afghan soldiers, Afghan police and Afghan patrolmen who will take the lead in ensuring the transition is irreversible," Allen noted.

In many parts of southern Afghanistan, a "surge" of U.S. forces has marginalized the Taliban's ability to take control of territory. However, the insurgents show they can continue to exert influence through high profile, surgical strikes.

And the recent killing in Kandahar of provincial council head Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's half brother, has destabilized the south just as the transition is getting into full swing, leaving a vacuum in the power structure.

As the NATO-led mission draws down, it only increases the need for strong and capable Afghan forces that can take over, providing Afghan protection for Afghanistan. And that is a tall order. At a tent city in Kabul, thousands of illiterate recruits are being taught reading, writing and arithmetic. They must learn these basics before they can even think of picking up a weapon.

The cadets come from across Afghanistan, compounding the difficulty of training them: there are at least eight different languages in the ethnically diverse country.

But NATO trainers like Captain Carl Gunther say the benefit to Afghanistan from such a program goes well beyond just security.

"The soldier is coming into the program and after eight weeks is able to do basic literacy as well as mathematics," Gunther explained. "And this not only enables him to perform his mission and job as a soldier, but upon his conclusion - within his time in the service - he then goes back to a civilian world and is able to take that literacy back to his village and to his home. And so in the long term effect it is helping to grow Afghanistan as a whole."

But the soldier's return to his village is also a challenge for NATO and the government, because many will receive training and equipment and return home early. NATO military authorities admit that "retention" is a challenge and that they are addressing it by making sure the Afghan soldier remains committed.

But for some young men, the sense of duty and dedication is clearly apparent. Cadet Mustafa Hawadi hopes to attend a four-year program at West Point, after which, he says, he will return to Afghanistan as an officer - bound to a 10-year tour of duty.

"Sir, I hope to learn a modern tactics, and modern lessons about military life, how to react, how to serve, how to use my tactics, my ability, my….I mean, all my self-confidence for Afghan national army and its people," Hawadi said.

At the handover ceremony in the troubled south, local forces say they are ready to begin protecting their own people. How they perform will be crucial for the future of the country. And for bringing an end to U.S. involvement in what is now America's longest war.