By Ann Scott Tyson and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 12, 2009
The U.S. military and NATO are launching a major overhaul of the way they recruit, train and equip Afghanistan's security forces, seeking to reverse a trend in which the alliance for years did not invest adequately in Afghan troops and police while the Taliban gained strength, senior U.S. officials said.
The reorganization comes in advance of expected recommendations by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, to expand Afghan forces and the capacity to train them.
The recommendations, and the additional U.S. and NATO troops they will require, are among the few aspects of President Obama's Afghan strategy likely to have broad bipartisan support in Congress. Democrats, in particular, have expressed anxiety over reports that McChrystal may request more combat troops for the increasingly unpopular war.
Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on Friday for the Afghan force to "increase and accelerate dramatically," with a goal of 240,000 Afghan soldiers by 2012. The current target is to increase the existing number of soldiers to 134,000 by the end of 2011. "We're going to need many more trainers, hopefully including a much larger number of NATO trainers. We're going to need a surge of equipment that is coming out of Iraq and, instead of coming home, a great deal of it should be going to Afghanistan instead," he said.
Levin spoke on Capitol Hill after returning from a visit to Afghanistan and talks with McChrystal. "As of right now, it is likely that there will be a request from him for additional combat forces," Levin said.
Levin warned that "a bigger military footprint" in Afghanistan "provides propaganda fodder for the Taliban." The steps he proposed, he said, should be implemented "on an urgent basis before we consider an increase in U.S. ground combat forces beyond what is already planned by the end of this year."
McChrystal's still-secret recommendations are being debated by Obama's national security team. Early this year, Obama approved the deployment of 21,000 additional American troops -- including 4,000 trainers -- to Afghanistan, which will bring the U.S. deployment to 68,000 by the end of 2009.
Under the reorganization, NATO this month will establish a new command led by a three-star military officer to oversee recruiting and generating Afghan forces. The goal is to "bring more coherence" to uncoordinated efforts by NATO contingents in Afghanistan while underscoring that the mission "is not just America's challenge," one senior official said. The new command will also integrate the U.S.-led training command, the Combined Security Transition Command, led by a two-star Army general, Maj. Gen. Richard Formica, while narrowing its responsibilities considerably to building the Afghan Defense and Interior ministries.
In one illustration of how much basic work lies ahead, the U.S. military is seeking 275 contractors to train Afghan Defense Ministry personnel in everything from supply and budget to "diary management, meeting preparation and travel planning" for the minister and chief of general staff, according to the 96-page contract. Contractors will work in dozens of other areas of ministry activity, including operations, intelligence, logistics, force integration, and the offices of the command surgeon and comptroller.
Afghan and U.S. sources in Kabul said boosting the number and visibility of American and NATO advisers at the Afghan Defense Ministry and elsewhere could be unwelcome -- and could play into Taliban propaganda claims that they are part of an occupation force.
In another major change, all the U.S. and allied mentoring and training teams embedded with Afghan military and police units will be placed next month under a new operational command, headed by McChrystal's deputy, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military missions in Afghanistan.
Spiraling violence in Afghanistan has added urgency to the effort, as the United States has increased its troops in the country nearly twofold without a commensurate increase in the number of Afghan forces.
"We are building our side of this bridge. The Afghan bridge is not building," said one senior U.S. official, who like others discussed the matter on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. "Having U.S. troops enforcing martial law where they don't understand the people or speak the language -- this is a recipe for disaster."
When about 4,500 U.S. Marines launched an operation in July to push deep into Taliban territory in the southern province of Helmand, they were accompanied by about 400 Afghan security forces. Senior Afghan officials had placed priority on using Afghan troops to secure Kabul and other population centers for the August presidential election, one senior U.S. official said.
"The coalition did a poor job of coordinating with the Afghans our vision for how we were going to employ the Marines," the official said. Dozens of Marines have died fighting in Helmand since July.
For years, the United States and other NATO countries did not provide thousands of required military trainers and mentors for the effort to build up Afghan forces, and Levin said it remains undermanned by 12 percent. The training organization itself is a confusing conglomerate of active-duty, National Guard and Reserve forces from different countries as well as contractors and Afghans.
The growth of the Afghan army has sped up since last year. Still, thousands more trainers would be needed to significantly expand the force, and where they would come from remains uncertain. The Pentagon could mobilize another brigade of about 4,000 National Guard soldiers to devote to the effort, but such a mobilization would take time, officials said. Some senior American officials advocate deploying more 12-man U.S. Special Forces teams to train regular Afghan army battalions, noting that working with indigenous forces is a core mission of the Green Berets.
Given the shortage of mentoring teams, U.S. and other NATO commanders in Afghanistan are increasingly relying on another model in which they use combat units to partner with existing Afghan forces, essentially giving combat forces the dual role of fighting and on-the-job training.
Recruiting Afghans for the army and police in far greater numbers is also likely to be difficult, officials said.
"That is going to be a huge challenge to get the numbers they need from the Afghan population," said Brig. Gen. Steven P. Huber, commander of the 7,500-strong military and civilian task force based in Kabul that is training and mentoring Afghan forces. "Building a national-level army is a hard sell" in Afghanistan's disparate tribal communities, said Huber, commander of the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Illinois National Guard.
Local recruits often quit upon learning they will be sent to southern Afghanistan, citing "deteriorating security," Huber said. Others are expelled because of drug use -- as many as 15 percent per class in some areas.
Given the infrastructure and manpower, time for adequate training is also a challenge because Afghan army and police forces are in such great demand to counter a growing insurgency, said Col. Bill Hix, who until recently led the training effort in the south. Building facilities and obtaining vehicles, radios and weapons can take months, sometimes even more than a year, Hix said. Training leaders for bigger units such as battalions and brigades is "a very slow process," Huber said.
Another problem is that existing Afghan units are being depleted, experts said. "We have been building an army that we are not replenishing, that we are not bringing off-line to train," said Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War and a military historian who served on McChrystal's strategic review team.
"In a country that is larger than Iraq and has a much larger population . . . you are dealing with a tiny security force . . . and one that is not appropriate for the conditions on the ground," Kagan said.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and correspondent Pamela Constable in Kabul contributed to this report.