Training the Afghan security forces was a daunting task when NATO Training Mission Afghanistan first began. Almost no infrastructure was in place, and fewer than 30,000 soldiers and policemen served in the force.
Now, the command is recruiting and training soldiers and police in record numbers, pushing hard to reach the goal of a 305,000-member force by October 2011.
Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, commander of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan and Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, provided an update on his organization's progress in a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable today.
"Our greatest challenge today is to build a self-sustaining Afghan national security force with professionalism amongst its ranks," the general said. "Professionalism is truly the key ingredient to an enduring force that can serve and protect its people."
In the past nine months, Afghan forces' growth has doubled the average of any previous year, Caldwell said. This year has been the biggest year ever in terms of recruiting, training and retention, he said, and the training mission has exceeded its annual goal three months ahead of schedule.
While this is positive news, Caldwell said, he cautioned that attrition still is a problem, calling it the only "truly endemic enemy of professionalization." Caldwell said losses due to low retention, desertion and casualty have had a major effect on the quality of Afghan soldiers, not just the quantity.
He said with current attrition rates, the training mission will need to recruit and train some 141,000 soldiers and police to keep the 56,000 needed to meet the October 2011 goal.
"In order to meet the 2011 goal, we will need to recruit and train, in the next 15 months, approximately the same number as the total strength of the Afghan National Army today," Caldwell said.
Caldwell said that regardless of numbers, professionalism in the Afghan forces is central to force sustainment. Training and education help to instill leadership with an "ethos of service and loyalty" in officers and noncommissioned officers, the general said.
"It is only when the leaders embrace a culture of service to others that the Afghan national security force will truly be a professional force," he said. "We have made significant progress this year in laying the foundation to professionalize the [force]. We're realistic about the challenges ahead, but we are also optimistic about what we can do together with our Afghan counterparts to begin the process of transition as the Afghan forces take the lead in serving and protecting their people."
Increasing literacy in Afghan forces at every level is a central point to establishing professionalism and helping to instill not only loyalty and service, but also accountability, Caldwell said, noting that only 14 to 18 percent of new enlistees can read.
"Literacy provides us the ability to enforce accountability, it allows for professional military education, particularly specialized skills that are taught in branch schools and continued education," Caldwell said. "And it combats corruption within the [Afghan forces]. Unless we take on and deal with literacy, we'll be extremely challenged with accountability, branch competency, and working anti-corruption within the force itself."
Current literacy training is focused on getting Afghan soldiers to a third-grade reading level, enough to read a manual or pamphlet, understand how their pay system works, and account for their people and equipment on paper.
Caldwell didn't realize the gravity of the situation until he had been on the ground for a few months, he said. He went in with a mindset that he wasn't in the business of teaching people to read, but that he was training soldiers. When he realized trainees on the range couldn't read the serial numbers on their weapons, he knew literacy had to be a top priority.
"How can we establish accountability for the money the American taxpayers are putting in over here if they can't account for their equipment properly?" he asked. "If they're issued a sleeping bag and other equipment and given a piece of paper that shows what they've been issued, how are they able to read that and understand the very basic stuff about what they're responsible for and are supposed to maintain accountability of? They're totally dependent on somebody else who can manipulate the system, and corruption sets in place."
Improving literacy not only will help to combat corruption, a significant problem Caldwell has been dealing with when training leaders, but it also helps systems already in place move more smoothly. About 27,000 police and soldiers are now in mandatory literacy programs. By June 2011, Caldwell said, that number will be about 100,000 in continuous education programs.
One of those systems, an electronic deposit system that ensures lower-ranking soldiers aren't being robbed by corrupt superiors on payday, received a number of complaints. The ensuing investigation found that of the 90 soldiers who said they hadn't been paid, all had been paid in full, but they were illiterate and couldn't understand bank statements or automated teller machines.
"In fact, each of them had been paid. They had a lot of money in their accounts, several months worth of pay, and just did not know how to get at it," Caldwell said. "So a great idea to get at this systemic corruption that was out there, but now we've realized that there's a much lower-level level of corruption that could creep in unless we take on and, again, just give them the basic skill sets."
Caldwell emphasized that the Afghan security forces still are very young. Progress is being made to fill the ranks and train leaders so the Afghans will have a security force that can protect the nation, he said, but it's far from a finished product. Things such as logistics units, mobile medical units and intelligence units haven't been created yet, and the Afghan forces have only a very small transportation unit in place.
"So all those kinds of capabilities that you would need to truly operate independently have not yet been built and fielded into the force structure," Caldwell said. "Again, our focus up until now has been a very infantry-centric force and get as many, you know, ground units out there that could in fact be engaged in fighting the insurgency with the coalition forces providing all their support behind them."
Between now and Oct. 31 next year, Caldwell said the Afghan forces will be expanded and taught better to operate independently of NATO trainers and advisors. For now, he added, the focus is on essential leadership and literacy training so Afghans can independently develop in the future.
"So even though you may find some units today that have leadership that's maturing well and are able to take and do the planning, the coordination and execution of missions, they still are dependent on coalition forces until we finish really the complete build out of the army and the police force," the general said.
NTM-A / CSTC-A - Official Web Page
NTM-A / CSTC-A Blog - Command Blog
NTM-A / CSTC-A Blog - LTG Bill Caldwell's Blog
NTM-A / CSTC-A Blog - Dr. Jack Kem's Blog
'Training' Equals 'Transition' in Afghanistan - American Forces Press Service
U.S. General Cites Goals to Train Afghan Forces - New York Times
Afghanistan Security Force More than a Year Away - Associated Press