NATO allies pledged last month to support Afghan President Hamid Karzai's goal of having his country assume responsibility for security within four years. Jack Kem, deputy to the commander overseeing security force training, says significant progress has been made in the last year but much work remains. Rapid growth plans have created new problems, Kem says. Trainers are in short supply, and NATO is "still roughly seven hundred short" of the required level. There are also lingering issues with poorly educated soldiers, says Kem, noting that 86 percent of new recruits "can't read and write at the third-grade level." And while Afghans would "like to see the United States and the rest of the coalition eventually depart," Kem says, the country's security forces "also see this is a really good opportunity to help take control of their own fate."
In November of last year, NATO assumed oversight of the Afghan security-force training mission. Give us a sense of how that transition is going.
We're just a little under nine-months old right now with NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A). Before that, we were the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, or CSTC-A, and so we actually have merged the two headquarters together. It's important that we still maintain an identity with CSTC-A, because we receive a lot of the funding from the Afghan Security Forces Fund, which goes from the [U.S.] Congress to the secretary of Defense to the commander in CSTC-A. But NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan is significant because they oversee the training and development of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, and the Afghan Air Force. Another mission that the CSTC-A still maintains is ministerial systems development--the development in the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense. We play a major role in helping establish the systems needed to do the ministerial functions required for the security forces and the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense.
"Somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of the [current] police force today has not been formally trained."
The end strength, or size, of the Afghan army and police has been a moving target over the years. Where do the numbers stand now?
Our goals for October 31, 2010, are for the army to be at 134,000 and for the police to be at a total of 109,000. We have already met those goals in the last couple of weeks. The army is a little over 134,000 today and the police are about 115,000. This last JCMB [Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board] also established goals, which we're working toward now, for October 31, 2011. Those goals are for an army force at 171,600 and for a police of 134,000, for a total Afghan National Security Force at 305,600.
I've also seen some numbers looking further out to 2013. Are those being actively considered?
If you look at testimony that Senator [Carl] Levin gave on the Senate floor in October, the initial goals were to have a 400,000 [member] force [by 2014, later shifted to 2013], which did include a goal of 240,000 for the army and 160,000 for the police. There are always constant reviews, and we'll have a review that in December. But we have not established any goals beyond the 305,600 [planned for October 2011]. It is realistic that we may still increase the size of the Afghan security forces beyond 305,600, it may be necessary, but it's all dependent upon a number of factors: one is the security situation and how things are going; the second one is the appetite of the international community to have a larger force; and the other thing is the funding, because it does cost money to do that.
In years past training efforts were slowed by a shortage of international advisors. In April 2010, the Pentagon reported a continued shortfall of 759 trainers. Where does the shortfall stand now?
The growth that we're having right now, particularly in the army, is including a number of the branch schools [that] are opening up. Nine months ago our primary mission was to produce, in the army, an infantry-centric, COIN-enabled force. In the last nine months, there's been a really dramatic change. One thing is we are coming close to finishing up the primary infantry forces and we're doing a shift in the next year to building some of the enablers: We're building a signal school, a logistic school, military police school, an intelligence school, to help fill out the capabilities in the army to include all the specials they need so they can become more self-reliant. As we open those schools and do more of their functions, it increases the requirement for more international advisers, or trainers, to assist the development in the schools, doing the curriculum, setting them up, working with the Afghans to develop the classes that are done. Based upon the build of these schools we're still roughly seven hundred short today for those trainers.
Seven hundred is still a pretty significant shortfall. Is it safe to say commitments and pledges from NATO allies have not always translated to trainers on the ground?
There are three categories that we look at with the Combined Joint Statement of Requirements [which spells out NATO's training needs]. One category is boots on the ground--who's actually here--and that is a pledge that you already have somebody that's arrived and doing the mission. Then there are the pledges still coming in; we still have an arrival date for those, and those pledges are solid pledges. And then SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe] also does generation of potential pledges that we're currently negotiating with the countries, trying to get the logistics arrangements settled and trying to get more folks in. It is safe to say that we are not getting a hundred percent of the requirements pledged to come in, which is why SHAPE is active in trying to get more requirements that are fulfilled with pledges.
Significant challenges confront such rapid growth, from a lack of quality Afghan leaders to ongoing recruiting and retention. How do you overcome these roadblocks?
"They're looking forward to the time where they have the total control of the security situation and don't need us because they're self-reliant."
When President Obama made that speech [to West Point last year], it made a difference where there was actually a reaction [from the Afghan government] to get their recruiting numbers up and take this seriously. So we had about eight thousand recruits that came in December. That recruiting number that we'd had has stayed relatively high, historically high, since December. If you'd asked me in December would we make the goals of 134,000 with the army and 109,000 police, I would've told you I thought we could make it for the army, but we would fall short on the police. But we've met both those goals three months in advance, and that's because there's been some great improvement in terms of the recruiting.
How about addressing low literacy rates?
In November, there were about thirteen thousand in the army and the police combined that were in voluntary literary classes. The literacy rate in the country is very low. The reported figure across the board in the country is 28 percent. We're finding that on average about 14 percent of the soldiers and police that come in are literate. That means 86 percent can't read and write at the third-grade level. What we've done is we've instituted mandatory classes for literacy in both the army and the police in their basic training. If you're going to be a police officer, you need to be able to read and write.
The army is generally considered to the country's most respected institution, while the police are riddled with corruption issues, drug abuse, and internal violence. How is NATO working to restore Afghans' confidence in its police force?
On March 13, which was the start date we had for a bunch of the police classes, we changed the model in the country for how to do police training. In the past, a local district police chief could hire the policemen he wanted, bring them on the force, and then they would train them if they had slots come open. It was kind of a recruit, then assign, and then train if you're able to find time for it. That's one of the reasons why we started the FDD--the Focused District Development program--that was to go back in and do reforming, which was to give the training they should have had in the beginning. On March 13, the model changed to a recruit, train, assign model, which means everybody after [that], if they're hired as a police officer, is hired through the police recruiting command, and then they go through training before they're given a badge and a gun, and before they go on to police duties. Somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of the [current] police force today has not been formally trained. So we will do this as one way to make sure that all new policemen are trained.
A recent New York Times report suggested U.S. and coalition forces can't trust the police units they're paired with, for fear the Afghans might be playing both sides. The current NATO strategy for force development is to partner with Afghan units. Can that approach succeed if basic levels of trust are not there?
[T]hat article was anecdotal. On a force of 115,000, I'm sure there's a number that you would not be able to trust, that I wouldn't trust. But I don't think that's representative. I do think that partnering is the right answer. For example, if you're partnering with a police or an army force, we know that the number of instances for IEDs [improvised explosive devises] goes way down. That's for a number of reasons. One is because this is the environment they understand better, because they're from this area. So partnering actually makes you safer. Particularly, talking about IEDs and the risks, [Afghans] have a better view and are able to pick up what's going on. They know the people. They know who doesn't belong there. Partnering also helps to establish an international presence; it does have an impact on reducing corruption, because there's somebody else that's kind of watching and making sure things are done correctly.
I feel very safe when I'm with the Afghans, and I'm glad that the Afghan police force is around here, because they add a level of security, and they're very watchful and very mindful. I know what that [New York Times] story said; I know there are concerns. [But] that story is really anecdotal and I think it is isolated.
Some ordinary Afghans say that the Taliban returning to power, while not ideal, would be better than more war. Given this, how do you train an indigenous force to fight for a population that's just tired of fighting?
There's been thirty years of war here, and people are tired of fighting. I also think from my experience in talking to the Afghan people, that they saw what the Taliban offered, they saw what that provided, and there's really no desire to go back to that type of repression. They'd like to see the United States and the rest of the coalition eventually depart. They have no desire for us to stay forever. But they also see this is a really good opportunity to help take control of their own fate, and to not have the fate of the Taliban on them. That's the message I get clearly from all the Afghans that I talk to. They're looking forward to the time where they have the total control of the security situation and don't need us because they're self-reliant, but they do not want what the Taliban offer.