Literacy woes, lack of equipment hamper training of Afghan troops

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

September 25, 2005

JALALABAD, Afghanistan – U.S. and international efforts to train Afghanistan's security forces began in 2002, about a year before a similar program for Iraqi soldiers and police officers. Yet the Afghan model seems to have lagged behind the troubled Iraqi program.

Training Iraqi security forces to replace U.S. troops is the linchpin for the Bush administration's exit strategy for Iraq. Shoring up Afghanistan's fledgling security forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations on their own has far-reaching implications for security here, too.

By September, the Afghan army had grown to about 26,000 troops and the Afghan police force to more than 50,000. In contrast, the Iraqi army and special police forces have 87,300 troops, and the Iraqi police force has about 104,300 officers.

Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, defended the approach U.S. and allied forces had used to develop the Afghan forces, saying trainers have had to overcome the lack of a professional army for the past 13 years, a 20 percent literacy rate among recruits, no barracks or modern equipment with which to start, and other hurdles.

U.S. commanders with experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq note that Iraq has a much higher literacy rate, more of a tradition of professional soldiering and vastly better infrastructure. On the other hand, they say, the effort in Afghanistan is carried out in a much less lethal environment and with people who are grateful for whatever aid they receive.

Worries about persistent problems with logistics and other support for Afghan army units in the field recently prompted Eikenberry to slow the creation of new battalions, from about two a month to one. "One of the main vulnerabilities of the Afghan national army is their logistics system," said Maj. Gen. Jason K. Kamiya, the U.S. commander of daily tactical operations here.

Of greater concern to the United States are the police forces, which suffer shortages of vehicles, radios and even basic weapons. Until early September, many police recruits were training with wooden rifles.

"It's more or less a hollow force," said Maj. Gen. John T. Brennan of the Air Force, who oversees the police development effort. He said that the United States would spend $860 million this year to train and equip the police but that it would not be until late 2009 that the force was fully trained and outfitted.

Under an international division of responsibility after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban government, Germany has taken the lead in training the police but has mainly focused on churning out lieutenants and senior sergeants. Frustrated by the lack of progress in developing beat officers, the Pentagon stepped in this summer to expand the effort by adding a mentoring program using about 135 foreign civilian law enforcement veterans, and developing senior Afghan trainers.

Overall, the United States has spent more than $2.5 billion in the past two years on training, equipping and paying all Afghan security forces.

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who recently stepped down as the top U.S. trainer in Iraq, spent five days in Afghanistan in early September, preparing a confidential critique of the Afghan train-and-equip program.