WASHINGTON — The commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan painted an optimistic picture Tuesday of the progress in training Afghan security forces, a crucial pillar of President Barack Obama's plans to begin withdrawing American forces from that country in July.
But with U.S. taxpayers funding the training and the Afghan government and economy still relatively weak, concerns remain as to whether the Afghan forces will be sustainable and less corrupt in the long run.
Compared with the under-resourced training mission in past years, Afghan forces are "in a far better position" now and are "better trained, equipped and led than any of the forces we had trained in the past," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell said.
Amid mounting U.S. fiscal woes, however, Caldwell acknowledged to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center in Washington, that he continues to assess whether the cash-strapped Afghan government will be able to afford the force they're building when the American cash spigot no longer runs at full speed. The U.S. funds 92 percent of the training mission, which runs to $11 billion this year.
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Afghanistan will need to pay the bills and salaries of its own security forces eventually, and NATO doesn't want to create a military that's too expensive and extravagant when coalition troops eventually withdraw.
Afghan forces are still plagued by problems of desertion, illiteracy and an imbalance in the ethnic composition of those in leadership positions, as minorities such as ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks take many of these jobs while the dominant Pashtuns often are shut out.
Under Caldwell's helm over the last 20 months, NATO has put 100,000 Afghan recruits through training and the force now stands at more than 290,000 troops. Caldwell and his NATO team oversee the training of the Afghan military and the police force, and they effectively run the Afghan Interior and Defense departments.
But numbers matter little unless the troops are competent and can prove to be an effective independent fighting force, many experts agree. Currently, Afghan military forces can't operate independently, a major impediment to the planned reduction of U.S. forces that increasing numbers of American lawmakers are pushing for.
Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Afghan corruption remained a persistent problem, starting with chiefs of police, who often have to pay off provincial officials to get their jobs.
"In order to repay the payment you had to make to get the job, you then have to collect graft and corruption from people who work for you," Biddle said. "And that ripples down the system to police shaking down citizens at checkpoints."
Afghan forces still depend on NATO for crucial support — such as logistics, transportation and airlifts — and some experts question whether they'll be able to take over these functions after the country assumes responsibility for its own security in 2014.
To reduce corruption and desertion, NATO has increased the meager salaries of Afghan police officers and soldiers. Caldwell said it also had tightened standards for a cadre of recruits who could barely read or count, noting that when he took over in November 2009 many newly minted soldiers couldn't count how many bullets to insert into their weapons. Now such basic skills are a mandatory part of their training.
Literacy is the "essential enabler for everything we're doing," he said. "We call it a matter of life and death."
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