The Afghan police and Army are in dire need of more training, and when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates attends a summit of NATO defense chiefs starting Wednesday in the Netherlands, he is expected to demand that member countries send additional trainers to a nation considered crucial in the war on terror.
As violence rises in parts of Afghanistan, the mission to build a strong security force there is flagging in part because NATO members that had pledged support as recently as last year have yet to fulfill all their commitments, US defense officials say.
Secretary Gates said last week that pressing those countries to step up will top his agenda during the two-day meeting.
"I expect this subject to be the centerpiece of those discussions – of people meeting the commitments they have made," Gates said.
Gates is seeking not only more trainers, but also a "strategic plan" for adding trainers and better coordination of economic and civil development in the country.
But the addition of more trainers is key, defense officials agree. More personnel to train Afghan forces will speed coalition forces' ability to build the Afghan National Army and police and – as in Iraq – lead ultimately to coalition withdrawal of troops.
Some progress, but trainers sought
While the Afghan Army has been lauded for making good progress, the Afghan police have not made the same strides, plagued by problems with corruption, low pay, and promotion.
A shortage of trainers has slowed progress on both fronts. Gates, who was in Kiev Sunday, is asking Ukraine and other Eastern European countries for help, according to a Reuters report.
"The greatest shortfall that we face right now, both in terms of increasing the size of the training base and in taking units into combat and employing them, are trainers," said Army Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, commanding general of the Combined Security Transition Command for Afghanistan, during a briefing at the Pentagon last Thursday.
The training mission needs an additional 60 training teams – consisting of about 16 individuals each – to help the Afghan Army and police, according to Major General Cone. Currently, about 22 teams are on the ground and another 20 or so are promised by NATO countries. The 60 new teams would bring the overall program to 100 training teams.
US and coalition forces will have to remain in Afghanistan far longer than would be necessary if the international community does not provide more military trainers and mentors to buttress the Afghan police and Army, so that those forces can provide Afghanistan's security, say US and Afghan defense officials.
Afghan officials also want more weaponry and equipment, as well as the ability to transport troops and materiel. All will contribute to a more independent, secure country, said Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, minister of Defense. General Wardak is seeking more help from the US and European countries.
"The ultimate formula for victory is that the Afghan government and its US partners and international friends should do everything possible to accelerate the development, both in number and capability, of the Afghan national security forces," said Wardak, speaking at the same briefing last week as Cone. "By growing faster and ... with enhanced protection, mobility, firepower, and combat enablers, [Afghan units] will be more able to partner effectively with our international forces, operate more independently, and more quickly take the lead on physical security."
The mission in Afghanistan, which is led by NATO, includes a total of about 49,000 coalition forces, to which the US contributes about 26,000 military forces. By agreement, the objective is to train an Afghan Army force of about 70,000 and a police force of about 82,000.
Earlier this year, American officials marveled that the Taliban's "spring offensive" never materialized. Since then, however, the opium trade has blossomed along with a bumper crop of poppies, and violence has steadily increased, especially a rise in suicide attacks, defense officials say. Last week, coalition forces confirmed that in early September they intercepted a shipment of Iranian-made improvised explosive devices being shipped in from the Iranian border – a sign that Iran may be intervening in the mission in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the US Marine Corps recently floated a proposal to essentially redeploy to Afghanistan some 25,000 marines now assigned to Iraq. Under the proposal, the Army would be responsible for the Iraq war and the marines would assume the bulk of the US commitment to Afghanistan, a mission Corps officials suggest the Marines are better suited to handle.
But if the plan had any chance of consideration, Gates appeared to dismiss it last week.
"I have pretty much literally up to this point heard one sentence about [the proposal] and that they were thinking about it, and so I would say that if it happens, it'll be long after I'm secretary of Defense," he said.