Six months after US missiles started striking Kabul, the Pentagon is trying to build a new, unified Afghan national army as a crucial component of its "end game" in Afghanistan.
Determined to prevent US troops from becoming bogged down in a peacekeeping role (as in Bosnia), yet also rejecting a replay of the abrupt and destabilizing US disengagement from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Pentagon officials see an Afghan army as essential to the long-term aim of securing the country from terrorist groups.
An Afghan military, a border patrol, and a police force will ultimately take over the US role, providing "a reasonably stable environment so that the Taliban and Al Qaeda [don't] come back in and seize control or start training terrorists again, or doing things that we went in to stop them from doing," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday.
The Pentagon plans to dispatch 150 special forces troops this month to begin training a professional Afghan military force that would bolster the government against both civil strife and terrorist incursions. US-taught Afghan military officers could take over the training as early as the end of this year, Mr. Rumsfeld said.
"In the end, ultimately the Afghan people are going to have to provide for their own security," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The plan to deploy American troops not as fighters, but as counter-terrorism trainers, is emerging as a prime military strategy for destroying terrorist safe havens not only in Afghanistan, but also, for example, in the Philippines, Georgia, and Yemen, US officials say.
"America will actively prepare other nations for the battles ahead," Rumsfeld said recently. "Our goal is to train and equip forces in selected countries that want to help combat terror in their areas."
Later this month, for example, 180 US military advisers will begin arriving in Georgia to train four battalions of the former Soviet republic's Army to fight suspected terrorists hiding in the Pankisi Gorge. In Yemen, more than 100 American troops will begin arriving this month to help train and equip Yemeni special forces to prevent what US officials say may be efforts by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network to regroup there. About 160 US special forces soldiers are also training and advising the Philippine Army in battling the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group on the southern Philippine island of Basilan.
The strategy of building proxy antiterror forces in trouble spots aims to insure that US forces aren't stretched too thin, while also minimizing what US officials say are local sensitivities over an American military presence.
However, the effort takes time and money, and it has drawbacks including concern that proxy forces are unlikely to replicate US goals and capabilities.
Nowhere are the challenges of this strategy more pronounced than in Afghanistan, where the US and coalition allies are starting from scratch to cobble together a cohesive army, a border patrol, and a police force, experts say.
Few countries have pledged funds for these security forces, a source of exasperation for the Bush administration, which has asked Congress for $50 million to train and equip the army. Moreover, building the army is a daunting task that could take years, even as rivalrous warlords, ethnic jealousies, and remaining pockets of Al Qaeda and Taliban resistance threaten to destabilize the country, US officials and experts say.
"The trick for us in the future will be how to take from these tribal or ethnically based militias and bring forces to form a national army," Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the US operations in Afghanistan, said.
US special forces troops are expected to arrive in Afghanistan this month to begin 10-week training cycles, teaching skills one-on-one to several hundred recruits as well as group training at the squad, platoon, company and battalion levels.
Afghan military experts estimate that the country needs about 50,000 troops.
Yet beyond basic skills and numbers, the new Afghan army must be ethnically balanced and controlled by a broad-based government in order to be accepted as legitimate by local leaders, the experts say. Members of the country's dominant Pashtun ethnic group are concerned that the smaller Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities who made up the Northern Alliance will seek to control the army and government.
"It will take a lot of political savvy to make sure what is formed is an Afghan national army and the Tajiks don't dominate it," said Charles Dunbar, a former US envoy in Afghanistan.
Equally important is the need to create cohesiveness and a common esprit de corpswithin the army which is essentially being formed by young men with weapons, recruited from local warlord militias, who have engaged in years of civil war in Afghanistan.
"The army is held together by a culture you cannot do it in one or two years," said Ali Jalali, a former colonel in the Afghan army before the 1979 Soviet invasion who has written extensively on Afghan military affairs. "When they fight together, suffer together, enjoy things together, they become a cohesive unit. This is especially important in Afghanistan now, where there has been civil war."
"If the US pulls out before the Afghan national army is a cohesive force, then that will create a vacuum," Mr. Jalali warned.
While indicating no immediate plans to draw down American forces, US officials say some instability in Afghanistan is to be expected.
"Will there still be people moving across borders and doing bad things? Sure. But the world's not a perfectly tidy place," Rumsfeld said.