Kabul: NATO commanders on Wednesday warned US Defense Secretary Robert Gates of the challenges involved in recruiting Afghan soldiers and police, which the US military hopes will number 287,000 by July 2011.
Gates had spent two days in Afghanistan discussing the implementation of a sweeping new US war strategy set to deploy an extra 30,000 troops to battle the Taliban, with the goal of starting to withdraw US forces in July 2011.
The number two commander on the ground, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, said the new troops “will increase our capacity” to train Afghan forces — the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s plans to bring troops home.
“With the additional forces… we can and will be successful,” he said.
In this vast, rural country with an estimated population of between 26 and 30 million, a senior NATO commander has put the number of police at 68,000 and said that out of 94,000 soldiers trained so far, 10,000 have defected.
The target now is to recruit 287,000 Afghan police and soldiers by July 2011 and just under 300,000 by the end of fiscal year 2011, Rodriguez said.
But Lieutenant General William Caldwell, in charge of NATO training of Afghan forces, emphasised the challenges involved in reaching an initial objective of 134,000 local forces by October 2010.
“The biggest challenge is, how do we develop leaders for the Afghan army and the Afghan police. It’s a huge challenge,” he said.
“Leader development doesn’t happen overnight. That takes time.”
“How do we recruit more, retain more and reduce the attrition?” he added.
Rodriguez said recruiting and retaining personnel was particularly difficult in the south, the spiritual capital of the Taliban and scene of the heaviest fighting in the eight-year war.
“They are getting in tough fights all the time down there,” he said. “Where it’s hard we can’t recruit and we can’t retain” Afghan forces.
To attract more Afghans into the security forces, the government last month increased salaries for police and soldiers by at least 33 percent, although the Taliban can still pay up to 100 US dollars more per head.
“In the first seven days of this month the Afghan ministry of defence has been able to recruit more people in seven days than ever,” Caldwell said.
President Hamid Karzai warned Gates on Tuesday that the international community would need to help fund Afghanistan’s security forces for the next 15 to 20 years.
There is also a need for a better ethnic balance within the army, where the Tajiks, a minority of the population, are over-represented at 34 percent, and the Pashtun majority under-represented at 42 percent, Caldwell said.
Obama’s timeline for a US drawdown has sparked criticism from domestic opponents and within Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, where many fear the Taliban will sit out the surge, regroup and step up attacks in 18 months’ time.
Soaring violence has made this year the deadliest since the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, with record numbers of civilians, Afghan and foreign troops killed.
Rodriguez conceded that civilians may have been killed in a joint military operation with Afghan forces in the east of the country this week.
Civilian deaths are highly sensitive in Afghanistan because of fears they fan animosity against the Western-backed government and foreign forces.
“There could possibly have been some civilians killed,” Rodriguez told reporters.
Karzai’s office said six civilians, including a woman, died when troops from the NATO-led force conducted a raid in the eastern province of Laghman.
Gates on Wednesday toured the nerve centre of NATO command in Afghanistan, telling officers an imminent troop surge would turn around the war.
“We have all the pieces coming together to be successful here,” Gates told staff at the centre, which brings together representatives from 42 nations.
His optimism was echoed by General David Petraeus, the US general who masterminded the troop surge in Iraq and is now head of US Central Command.
“While certainly different and, in some ways tougher than Iraq, Afghanistan is no more hopeless than Iraq was when I took command there in February 2007,” the general said, speaking in Washington.