By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; A08
A U.S. military review in Afghanistan has concluded that the addition of more than 1,000 new U.S. military and NATO troops focused on training has helped stabilize what had been a failing effort to build Afghanistan's security forces, but that persistent attrition problems could still hinder long-term success.
"We are finally getting the resources, the people and money," said Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who heads the NATO training effort in Afghanistan and oversaw the review of his command's past 180 days. "We are moving in the right direction."
U.S. war plans depend on Afghan forces maintaining security in areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. military is adding 30,000 troops this summer. More broadly, the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy places a heavy emphasis on an expansion of the Afghan security forces before the United States begins to withdraw troops in July 2011.
Caldwell's report card on the training effort, which The Washington Post obtained in advance and is expected to be released within the next couple of days, paints a mixed picture.
On the plus side, new money for pay raises has helped boost a recruiting situation that was so dire last fall the Afghan army was shrinking. The progress has bolstered expectations that the Afghans will meet the Obama administration's goals of expanding the size of the police force to 109,000 officers and the army to 134,000 soldiers by the fall.
For the first time in years, the Afghan forces are "currently on path" to meet the ambitious growth targets, the assessment states. It isn't yet clear how well those forces will perform once they are in the field, which is the most important measure of success, Caldwell said.
Still, thousands of additional U.S. and NATO soldiers have arrived in Afghanistan in recent months, leading to a vast improvement in the ratio of recruits to trainers at the Afghan training bases. Today, there is about one trainer for every 29 or so recruits.
"In some areas last fall, we had one trainer for every 466 recruits," Caldwell said. "When you have that kind of ratio, it means that people aren't receiving any training."
The additional trainers have helped double the number of new Afghan soldiers who meet the minimum marksmanship standards by the end of basic training, the report states, although it is still lower than U.S. commanders would like. About 65 percent of the graduates passed the marksmanship test in May. The number of police recruits enrolled in basic literacy programs has also more than doubled, to 28,000 from about 13,000 last fall.
Despite those improvements, police and army units are still struggling to retain personnel, especially in critical areas where fighting is heavy and the demand for forces the greatest.
U.S. and Afghan commanders, for example, have made significant use of the Afghan National Civil Order Police, who are more highly trained than the regular police, to hold areas that U.S. troops have cleared of insurgents. In Marja, the site of the largest U.S.-Afghan offensive of the war, the National Civil Order Police moved in shortly after the U.S. and Afghan army push this spring.
The assessment found that the attrition rate in the Civil Order Police is about 70 percent. That's lower than it was at the end of 2009, the report states, but still "unacceptable and unsustainable."
The Afghan army has missed its attrition goals for two of the past four months, a vast improvement over last fall and winter, when the army was consistently failing to meet its targets. Caldwell, however, said attrition still remains too high in the south and east, where Afghan forces are engaged in the heaviest fighting.
To fix the problem, U.S. and Afghan officials are weighing the possibility of increasing combat pay and giving soldiers a break from battle. "We are working real hard to set up a system to rotate units" out of areas where combat is heaviest, Caldwell said.
U.S. commanders have said the performance of Afghan police and army forces in Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, is essential to the military campaign planned for the area this summer. There are concerns that, as fighting with the Taliban increases, recruitment and retention could suffer.
To ensure continued progress, the report states that the number of military trainers must continue to grow. "In order to increase the probability of success, additional personnel are required," the report says.
Earlier this spring, the Pentagon rushed to fill a near-term training shortage by deploying about a battalion of troops for about three months. Over the longer term, the military is depending on its NATO coalition partners to deploy as many as 750 additional police and army trainers. U.S. officials are cautiously optimistic that they will get most of those trainers and that the increase in instruction will lead to an overall improvement in the force.
"We're going to start seeing a more professional Afghan force in the field over the next eight to 12 months," Caldwell said.