Afghanistan's Army is growing at a record rate, and now leads and helps plan nearly two-thirds of the country's military operations. Army Major General Robert Cone, the commander of the U.S. training program in Afghanistan, says Afghan soldiers are proving themselves in battle and are dedicated to the defense of their nation. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Washington.

Briefing reporters at the Pentagon via satellite from Kabul, General Cone says efforts to train the Afghan National Army, or ANA, are going well and a goal has been set to nearly double the number of soldiers within the next several years.

"The ANA are leading about 60 percent of the operations they participate in and have proven themselves as an effective fighting force," general Cone said. "The ANA is also in the midst of expanding from their current strength of 68,000 to an end strength of about 134,000."

General Cone says that last year, 26,000 soldiers have been trained and added to the Afghan National Army. And he says that this year, the Army will expand by an additional 28,000 troops. He says that is about three times the number trained in previous years.

Cone, who heads U.S. efforts to instruct and equip Afghan security forces, says the newly trained troops are being armed with NATO weapons and supplied with armored vehicles.

Besides working with the military, Cone's command is also training the Afghan police force, which he says lags behind the Army.

"We have a long way to go," general Cone said. "This effort requires sustained support, not just from the United States, but also from the international community. This is especially true for the police reformation where I am short some 2,300 police trainers and mentors."

The Bush administration is in the midst of a wide review of its war strategy in Afghanistan and is expected to present its findings before President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a key advocate of expanding Afghanistan's military forces, although he has approved sending more than 10,000 additional American troops to help fight the Taliban and al-Qaida next year.

General Cone says an accelerated training program is a critical part of the overall plan to bring security to the country.

"The Afghans are a warrior nation. It is a warrior culture and the trick for us here is to harness that capability," general Cone said. "They very much want to defend their country. And so it is up to us to really work with them in an organized fashion and be able to bring forward that capability as rapidly as we can."

General Cone says holding back an even more rapid expansion of Afghanistan's Army is a shortage of seasoned and reliable military professionals.

Cone says he is urging the Afghan government to accelerate officer training programs.