Spencer Ackerman / Danger Room, Wired Magazine & Walter Pincus / The Washington Post< - 2011-09-30 00:29:14
Not A Single Afghan Battalion Fights Without US Help
Spencer Ackerman / Danger Room, Wired Magazine
(September 26, 2011) — Ten years of war. Two years of an accelerated effort to train Afghans to take over that fight, at an annual cost of $6 billion. And not a single Afghan army battalion can operate without assistance from US or allied units.
That was the assessment made by the officer responsible for training those Afghan soldiers, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell. Out of approximately 180 Afghan National Army battalions, only two operate “independently.” Except that “independently,” in Caldwell’s National Training Mission-Afghanistan command, means something different than “independently” does in the States.
Those two “independent” battalions still require US support for their maintenance, logistics and medical systems,” Caldwell admitted when Pentagon reporters pressed him on Monday morning.
“Today, we haven’t developed their systems to enable them to do that yet,” Caldwell said.
Building up foreign armies isn’t easy. During 2008’s battle for Basra, Iraqi forces relied heavily on US and British support — and still saw more than a thousand desertions. That was four years after then Maj. Gen. David Petraeus took over the training of the Iraqi military.
For the past two years, Caldwell’s overseen a big push to expand, professionalize and train Afghan soldiers and cops. Caldwell has gotten bodies into uniforms: the Afghan army and police total 305,516 today, up from 196,508 last December, and they’re “on track,” Caldwell says, to reach 352,000 by November 2012.
Caldwell praised Afghan police officers during the Taliban’s audacious attack on Kabul earlier this month. Two separate cops “literally did a bear hug” on separate suicide bombers in different places around the city, sacrificing themselves in the process. “Policemen were doing heroic deeds,” Caldwell said.
But most of Afghanistan’s men in uniform can’t read at a kindergarten level, much less understand the instrument panels on a helicopter or the serial numbers on their rifles.
That’s one reason why it’ll be years before the US takes its training wheels off the Afghan soldiers’ bikes. Although the Obama administration plans to turn the war over to forces Caldwell trains by 2014, Caldwell told Danger Room in June that the Afghans will need US training until as late as 2017.
That is, if attrition doesn’t get in the way. Caldwell expressed alarm that 1.4 percent of Afghan cops and 2.3 percent of Afghan soldiers walk off the job every month, saying that if “left unchecked [attrition] could undo much of the progress made to date.” Yet last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified that attrition rates are “as much as three percent per month.
Asked by Danger Room about the increase, Caldwell simply said that the “goal we’ve set” is a 1.4 monthly attrition level across both forces. In the Afghan National Army, attrition “has been steady over the last year. We have not seen the decline,” Caldwell said.
Then there’s the nagging issue of human rights. “US officials have for years been aware of credible allegations that newly-installed Kandahar police chief [Brigadier General Abdul] Raziq and his men participated in a cold-blooded massacre of civilians,” writes Matthieu Aikins, in a gut-wrenching new expose for The Atlantic. Yet Raziq has been showered with cash and official praises from the highest level of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Caldwell has instituted an additional 18 hours of training on respecting Afghans’ rights into the eight-week course that the typical would-be Afghan cop takes. But Caldwell doesn’t train every Afghan cop. Members of a program called the Afghan Local Police — founded in 2010 by Petraeus to recruit auxiliaries against the Taliban — has been implicated in “killings, rape, arbitrary detention, abductions, forcible land grabs, and illegal raids by irregular armed groups,” according to a Human Rights Watch report issued this month.
Special Operations Forces are responsible for turning these groups into respectable units. When Danger Room asked if it was time for Caldwell to take over that training, Caldwell said, “We’ve not been asked to at this pointâ€¦ If there is a request for us to help and become engaged in that, we obviously would. But at this point, I think the special forces element that has the responsibility for that clearly sees and understands what that report says. We all take that very seriously.”
With insurgents assassinating the man in charge of negotiating a peace deal, the Afghan security forces are the backbone of the US’ long-term plan for Afghan security. During his Senate testimony on Thursday, Panetta called their development “one of the most notable successes” of the war.
Yet not only can no Afghan army battalion operate without US aid, the US has been purchasing them a lot of creature comforts. Caldwell said that his command recently stopped buying air conditioning units for Afghan barracks, replacing them with fans instead — part of an effort to pare down the $6 billion that it costs to keep the Afghan security forces going. Caldwell said he expects that number to drop — in part because someday Afghanistan won’t be ravaged by insurgency (maybe, hopefully) — but he doesn’t know how much it’ll drop by, or by when.
“I’m still very realistic about the challenges out there,” Caldwell said.
Update: I misheard Caldwell during today’s Pentagon briefing when he discussed the goal he’s set for monthly attrition rates. Thanks to his public-affairs officer, Lt. Col. Shawn Stroud, for alerting me to my mistake.
â€¢ If Afghan Troops Can’t Read Cat in the Hat, This War Is Screwed
â€¢ Six More Years: US General Wants to Train Afghans Until â€˜2017′
â€¢ What Surge? NATO Says it Needs More Trainers for Afghan Cops
â€¢ Afghans Purge Hundreds of Top Cops as NATO Cheers
Spencer Ackerman is Danger Room’s senior reporter, based out of Washington, D.C., covering weapons of doom and the strategies they’re used to implement.
Follow @attackerman and @dangerroom on Twitter.
800 Additional US Military Trainers to be Sent to Afghanistan by March
Walter Pincus / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON (September 26, 2011) — Eight hundred more US military trainers will be sent to Afghanistan by March to help with logistics, maintenance, medical care and other areas in which the Afghan army is short on skills, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, commander of NATO’s training mission there, said Monday.
“That will better help us start getting at some of these specialty skills,” he told reporters in a teleconference from Kabul.
Caldwell said training in these areas was needed to enable Afghan army units to be better prepared to operate without US support by 2014, when American combat troops are scheduled to leave.
Caldwell said that only two of 126 Afghan army battalions are currently operating “by themselves.” But he later said that even those two needed logistics, maintenance, medical and intelligence support. Other battalions operated “very effectively with minimal coalition support,” he said.
He said that training programs once were led by contractors but that Afghans increasingly are taking control. About 3,100 Afghans are assigned to training instruction, and half of those “have been certified through a very deliberate process,” he said.
Caldwell said Afghan police played a key role in protecting civilians during the attack on the US Embassy on Sept. 13.
In another attack that day that was not as well-publicized, a group of students at a high school were saved when an Afghan police officer “did a bear hug around a suicide bomber when he blew himself up and there in the process obviously killed himself,” Caldwell said.
He told of another senior police officer who also ran up to a bomber who got close to Afghan National Civil Order Police headquarters, again giving the assailant a hug as the bomb went off, killing himself but saving the lives of nearby officers.
Caldwell also said that attrition rates within the Afghan military, though higher than desirable, have not kept Afghanistan’s security forces from growing. They are on track to reach 352,000 personnel by 2012.
Literacy remains a problem. But the recruitment of about 3,000 Afghan literacy teachers has eased it somewhat. Caldwell said that about half of all Afghan army and police personnel have gone through the literacy program. Only 18 percent of those currently serving were literate when they joined, he said.
The Afghan security forces program overall costs about $6 billion a year for a country whose government income is estimated at just over $1 billion. Caldwell refused to predict how long it will take for the spending to decrease. He said he is looking for “sources from the international community to help pay for it in the long term,” as well as contributions from the US and Afghan governments.
Caldwell said some savings are already being realized through the purchase of local products. Boots once bought for the Afghan army at $170 a pair from the United States are now bought for less from Afghan factories. A similar approach is being taken when buying uniforms, sheets and pillowcases. The overall savings amount to $168 million a year.
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