Senior U.S. and NATO commanders in Kabul say Afghan forces will soon begin to take the lead in some combat operations, but will continue to need substantial allied support. And the head of training for the international effort says he faces a substantial challenge in the plan to recruit and train tens of thousands more Afghan soldiers and police officers.
The plan to transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces is the centerpiece of U.S. President Barack Obama's revised Afghanistan strategy. But that cannot happen unless the Afghan government and the coalition can recruit, train and retain soldiers and police officers at a much faster rate than they have been.
U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Caldwell said Wednesday that the goal of having 282,000 Afghan troops by the time President Obama wants to begin to withdraw American forces in mid-2011 will not be met unless the effort moves considerably faster. But he said there may have been an important first step during the past week.
"In the first seven days of this month, the Afghan ministry of defense has been able to recruit more people in seven days than they've ever done before that we've tracked, that we've been monitoring this with them," said General Caldwell. "They have had over 2,500 recruits they have signed up in the last seven days and, as I understand, the number is still going up."
Caldwell said Afghan officials attribute the recruiting spike largely to a pay increase for soldiers and police officers that the coalition hopes will remove the financial incentive some men feel to work for the Taliban. But he also warned of challenges that lie ahead, including widespread illiteracy, problems maintaining the right ethnic mix and the fact that it takes years to develop good leaders.
At the same news conference with visiting reporters, the number-two U.S. and NATO commander here, U.S. Army Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, said the Afghan Army, currently 95,000 strong, will soon begin to take the lead in operations in more of the country, in addition to the capital where it already has responsibility for all but one district.
"They'll take the lead here fairly quickly in a lot of places," said General Rodriguez. "Really, what's important is how much we're supporting their efforts, to what degree, when they take the lead. Okay? And over time, that's going to decrease."
"Taking the lead" means involvement in planning and being in a lead position in operations, but it is still far from operating independently.
Part of the revised strategy involves increased partnering of coalition and Afghan units, which will be made easier by the 30,000 additional U.S. troops President Obama is sending and an expected increase of at least 7,000 troops from other countries.
It also involves bringing Afghan officers into General Rodriguez's new operations center, where visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke on Wednesday.
"I think we've got all the pieces coming together to be successful here, so thank you all very much," said Secretary Gates.
Although there have been many grand plans by new commanders in the eight-year Afghan war, General Caldwell, who arrived a month ago and had a similar training job in Iraq two years ago, said this time the results will be better.
"There has never been the intensity of effort in the commitment of forces and the monetary backing to do what we're doing today," he said. "And it's not just us, it's the Afghan government."
And now they are facing President Obama's July, 2011 deadline to begin a formal transition to Afghan security control.
General Rodriguez says having such a date is forcing Afghan and international officials to focus more intently on key areas, like the building of the Afghan forces. But he also reported that the Taliban is using the date to try to convince Afghans the allies will soon be leaving. U.S. and NATO officials say that is not true, and Secretary Gates said Tuesday that there will be a substantial allied military presence for at least several years after 2011, and a long-term relationship well beyond that.