The US commander responsible for training and equipping the Afghan national army says steady progress has been made in building a professional Afghan national army and police force, although significant challenges remain.
Army Major General Robert Durbin, commander of Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, says right now, that U.S. and coalition forces envision a new Afghan army numbering 70,000 troops. But he adds that decision lies firmly in the hands of the Afghan government.
"The size of the Afghan National Army will be determined by the government of Afghanistan in consultation with the international community. As time progresses the government of Afghanistan in consultation with the international army may revisit that number," said General Durbin.
But the Afghan defense minister has been quoted as saying an army of 150,000 to 200,000 troops would be needed to secure Afghanistan, which has recently experienced a serious increase in violence by former Taliban fighters.
Reaching a goal of a 70,000 - strong army will take a little over three years, given that the Department of Defense estimates the Afghan army - an all volunteer force - is recruiting an extra 1,000 soldiers per month. Over 3,000 US forces in Afghanistan are currently training the Afghan army and police.
General Durbin says that within that time frame, the hope is to have an Afghan army able to conduct independent operations with what he emphasized would be limited U.S. and coalition support.
Currently, there are 30,000 troops in the Afghan army that are fully equipped and trained and a little over 37,000 police that have finished training and have equipment. He says there are already 62,000 Afghans in the police force but they are without the necessary equipment such as weapons and uniforms.
General Durbin admits significant problems are making it difficult to get Afghan forces up and running on their own.
"Perhaps the greatest challenge for the army and the police is that they face an adaptive enemy bent of destabilizing Afghanistan through any means necessary," he said.
The General says other major challenges include absenteeism, illiteracy, and developing solid, high quality leadership. Another big problem, he says, is a deeply embedded culture of corruption in Afghanistan, making it difficult to find and retain trusted leaders.
He says one mark of progress took place on June 15. That day, he says, with the Afghan national army in the lead bolstered by coalition forces, the decisive phase of operation "Mountain Thrust" began in southern Afghanistan. General Durbin says it is the first ever large scale military operation in which Afghan army shouldered a large portion of the burden, including advance planning and execution, with the highest percentage of the force participating.
Another focus is getting much needed equipment to Afghan troops and, in particular, the police force. General Durbin says the United States is in process of shipping body armor, M-16 rifles, ammunition, weapons and humvees (army vehicles) to the country to bolster the effort to build an effective army and police force.
But General Durbin admits getting equipment to Afghanistan is a slow and difficult logistical process.