Report faults U.S. for being too optimistic about Afghan security capabilities

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; A12

The U.S. military has systematically overstated or failed to adequately measure the capabilities of Afghan security forces, whose performance is key to the Obama administration's exit strategy for the war, according to a new government audit.

Efforts to prepare and equip Afghan forces are also plagued by a shortage of U.S.-led coalition trainers and mentors and a corrupt and inadequate Afghan logistics system, the report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said.

The coalition did not challenge the findings and acknowledged significant ongoing problems. But it said the report, released Monday, was outdated and failed to take sufficient account of recent improvements in the training program.

(See a PDF of the full report.)

Gen. David H. Petraeus, whom President Obama nominated last week to head U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is likely to face questions about the effort to train Afghan security forces at a confirmation hearing Tuesday. Under the administration's plan, the U.S.-led coalition will begin transferring control of some areas to Afghan security forces beginning in July 2011.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Monday that plans for coalition forces to outnumber their Afghan counterparts in an upcoming offensive in Kandahar were "totally unacceptable."

"It runs exactly contrary to what needs to be done in terms of the success of this mission, to put Afghans more in front," Levin said. "What's going on? Why is that true? Why is that still the case?"

According to the Kandahar plan presented to NATO leaders in Brussels this month by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who was ousted as coalition commander by Obama last week, the operation will include 11,850 mostly American foreign troops and 8,500 Afghan military and police personnel.

Levin said he would also press Petraeus on his support for the July 2011 U.S. withdrawals. At a recent hearing, Petraeus hesitated when asked to voice his support for the deadline, which many in the military oppose, then emphasized that it would mark the beginning of a transition to Afghan control that would have a pace and scope that would depend on "conditions on the ground."

Levin and other Democrats have pressed the administration for a commitment to speed up the turnover of control to Afghan forces. But senior Republicans have charged that the deadline, set by Obama when he announced a new strategy and a surge in U.S. forces to Afghanistan last December, only encouraged Taliban insurgents to wait for a U.S. departure.

Lawmakers are also expected to ask Petraeus whether he plans to alter McChrystal's rules of engagement, including restrictions on coalition air attacks and ground operations, which some troops have said endanger them and put them at a disadvantage in fighting the Taliban. But the rules, designed to avoid civilian casualties, are drawn directly from the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency manual, which Petraeus authored.

Levin said that most Democrats still support the war strategy but warned of "the beginnings of a fraying of that support."

Obama's strategy called for a surge in U.S. forces to take momentum from the Taliban and a doubling of the size of trained Afghan army and police forces that would eventually take over. The forces, though, remain in poor shape, with high rates of desertion, illiteracy and drug abuse.

The overall coalition plan calls for 2,325 trainers, of which only 846 are on the ground, with 660 additional pledged. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has diverted about 800 U.S. troops to temporarily bridge the gap.

The report's principal focus is the rating system used since 2005 to measure the extent to which individual Afghan security units are capable of fighting on their own. According to U.S. figures at the end of March, only 23 percent of the Afghan army and 12 percent of the police drew top ratings.

The system, which counted the quantity of troops and equipment rather than quality of effort, was deeply flawed, the report said, and the number of capable units was probably lower. In one top-rated police district, it noted, 53 officers had been authorized and 23 had been trained, but only six officers were found to be present. Another district had 10 vehicles provided by the U.S. government, but only three drivers.

In a written response to the report, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the training commander, said the findings were "not only inaccurate" because they relied on outdated data but "potentially damaging." The United States has spent $27 billion, more than half of all reconstruction dollars, on training and equipping Afghan forces.

U.S. Army Col. John Ferrari, under Caldwell's command, agreed that the rating system was not "optimal" and said that it had been replaced this spring with a more subjective, qualitative assessment program, along with vastly expanded training and mentoring. The military has not yet provided assessments under the new system.

Rather than sending Afghan troops directly into combat -- many of them for the first time -- all soldiers and police are trained before being sent to the battlefield with coalition forces at their sides, Ferrari said in a telephone interview.

"What you want to do over a period of time is to stay with that unit," Ferrari said. "And then maybe you take the training wheels off . . . and back off a bit and see how it does. Some are going to backslide, and then you grab it back again for a couple of times until the unit can hold that readiness level."

Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

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