What to watch in the Afghanistan war: training the Afghan Army

The US cannot simply emphasize the numbers. It has to focus on quality training for the Afghanistan National Army. 

How many new Afghan soldiers have you recruited and trained today, General McChrystal?

It’s a question that President Obama and Congress may soon be asking the top US military officer in Afghanistan now that his commander in chief has set down a plan for US troops to start exiting that war in July 2011. 

Afghan Army building, more so than nation building, is the key link – and a weak one – in Mr. Obama’s strategy to hand over security of Afghanistan beginning in only 18 months. To help gauge whether the plan is on track, Gen. Stanley McChrystal should be giving regular updates on this crash training of Afghan forces.

If the plan is succeeding, a pivotal moment will arrive when the Afghan National Army wins a critical battle against the radical Islamist Taliban forces with only minimal backup from the US military. In Iraq, that moment came in the spring of 2008 when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, sent the Iraqi Army to the city of Basra to end an uprising by the Shiite Mahdi militia.

Afghanistan is still a long way from its Basra moment. After eight years and $19 billion spent on training, the Afghan Army is only some 95,000-strong and barely battle-hardened. A force of at least 250,000 is needed to keep the Taliban in check in the largely rural, mountainous country. 

And the Army remains rifted by desertions, graft, cowardice, illiteracy, low pay and, most of all, an ethnic mix dominated by minority Tajiks rather than the majority Pashtuns. Without greater recruitment of Pashtuns, the Army will have a hard time pacifying the Pashtun regions, where the Taliban derives its strength.

With political pressure from Democrats to retreat from Afghanistan, Obama’s key decision in his new strategy was to quicken the training of the Afghan Army by two years. He also wants many of the 30,000 additional US troops (along with a promised 7,000 troops from allies) to focus on training – especially on-the-job training in which Afghan forces learn during combat missions.

The risk is that Obama will push numbers over quality. 

It may be easy to quickly swell the ranks of Afghan soldiers and officers – especially with the lure of higher salaries. But rushing them into battle and into rapidly mastering the subtleties of counterinsurgency may only backfire. Obama’s backup plan is to buy off local militias to stand up against the Taliban. But that plan may undercut Afghanistan’s fragile democracy if it simply empowers corrupt warlords.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says it will take five years to ready the Army. Obama officials hint they can’t wait that long.

A war critic in the Senate, Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, claims that the shortage of Afghan forces will be the “Achilles’ heel” for a US troop pullout. Perhaps, but shortage isn’t the only issue. When Obama asks McChrystal for updates on the training of Afghan soldiers and officers, he’ll need to ask: “And how well have you trained them?”

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