By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are requesting 3,300 more troops to accelerate the training of new Afghan army and police forces, a job seen as critical to defeating Afghanistan's growing insurgency.
Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, who heads the U.S. command in Kabul that trains Afghan forces, said yesterday he has asked for 60 additional training teams -- a total of about 1,000 troops -- to help speed the expansion of the Afghan army.
Cone said the latest request, currently in NATO and U.S. military channels, is in addition to his prior request to fill a shortfall of 2,300 trainers. Still, with NATO struggling to meet even the lower goal for trainers, it is not clear where the new teams will come from.
Beefing up the Afghan army has emerged as a main theme of an ongoing Bush administration review of strategy in Afghanistan. This goal has the backing of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has voiced misgivings about U.S. and other foreign troops establishing too large a presence in Afghanistan given its traditional hostility to occupiers.
Under current plans, it will take until the end of 2013 to nearly double the size of the Afghan army from its current strength of 68,000 soldiers. Cone said that with the additional trainers, that goal could be reached two years earlier.
"We're working on a plan that essentially would . . . deliver the 134,000 by 2011," Cone said in a videoconference with Pentagon reporters.
Top U.S. military officials including Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned that time is running out for the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, as the insurgency intensifies and political support for supplying troops for the conflict wanes in some allied countries.
Those trends, as well as the strain of the effort in Iraq on U.S., British and other allied forces, has added urgency to the effort to build Afghan military and police forces. The goal for the total strength of the Afghan army expanded from 70,000 to 80,000 last year, and then to 134,000 this fall. The larger force will cost $2 billion to $2.5 billion a year -- three times the size of Afghanistan's annual budget of $700 million -- therefore requiring substantial investments from the United States and other nations.
While some analysts have argued that such an expensive army is not sustainable in an impoverished country such as Afghanistan, senior military officials have made the dire prediction that without a more robust Afghan army, the country will have no future.
Other hurdles to building up the Afghan army include a shortage of skilled individuals from which to draw noncommissioned officers following decades of warfare, Cone said. Another problem is corruption, as well as the logistical difficulties of equipping and training the force, he said.
"You have to scratch something literally out of the desert to build a training center for the Afghans," Cone said.
Both the Bush administration and the team of President-elect Barack Obama have called for significant increases in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year. U.S. commanders want three more combat brigades and thousands of support troops, for a total of about 20,000 additional troops, as well as helicopters and unmanned drones, but such increases depend on continuing troop reductions in Iraq.
Other NATO countries such as Britain are also considering shifting resources from Iraq to Afghanistan as conditions permit, and are likely to follow the U.S. lead, officials said.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new leader of U.S. Central Command, discussed the possibility of more British contributions in an unplanned meeting Sunday in London with British Secretary of Defense John Hutton and Chief of Defense Staff Jock Stirrup. Petraeus, who previously set up the command in Iraq that trains the country's forces, has also supported expanding the size of the Afghan army.