KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO's year-old mission to bolster Afghan security forces faces a critical shortage of 900 trainers, not enough officers and high attrition rates that could hamper efforts to speed the withdrawal of international forces from the unpopular war, the commander of the coalition's training mission said Monday.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants his nation's police and army to take the lead in protecting and defending their homeland by 2014 — a deadline that will be reached only if the stepped-up training effort continues with support from foreign capitals weary of the war.
Achieving Karzai's goal of moving Afghan forces into the lead to permit international troops to leave or transition to support roles will mean training more officers, battling corruption within the ranks and finding mentors from NATO nations to teach the security forces how to manage hospitals, for example, or fly and maintain Mi-17 aircraft.
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"If you don't have trainers, you're going to have a challenging time transitioning," U.S. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell said after a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the training mission in Afghanistan.
The 900 additional international trainers would join the 1,800 trainers already working in Afghanistan, he said. These positions need to be filled between December and July 2011, the date when President Barack Obama wants to start pulling out U.S. troops if conditions permit
"No trainers, no transition," Caldwell wrote in a 31-page report card on the training mission, which was issued at the event.
International support for the war is waning, yet Caldwell said he remained hopeful that NATO nations would pledge more trainers, possibly at a meeting of the alliance later this month in Portugal.
"Nations may be waiting to make a commitment there," he said. "We have been talking with quite a few."
Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, who was the keynote speaker at the event, called for patience in strengthening the ranks of the army and police. Wardak, who will attend the meeting Nov. 19-21 in Lisbon, noted that the international community only started accelerating training in the past few years.
"I do hope that we will be able to demonstrate enough progress to prove to the international community and their leaders that their commitment and development of their forces are not open-ended — that we are preparing and trying really hard," he said in anticipation of the meeting. "I think we will have enough indicators of progress."
Traveling in Australia, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said NATO should endorse the 2014 timeline in Lisbon. "As a target at this point that makes sense, so I am comfortable with it," Mullen said.
In the past year, the Afghan National Army grew 42 percent — from 97,000 to 138,164. The size of the police force rose from about 95,000 to 120,504, or 27 percent.
Developing leaders within the Afghan security forces and reducing attrition are two of the training mission's top priorities.
"Leadership deficiencies remain across the spectrum — from an insufficient number of junior officers and noncommissioned officers to some corrupt, untrained and inefficient senior officers," the report said. "This is still the greatest threat to the success of our Afghan partners, especially as poor leadership contributes to attrition."
High attrition rates, especially in army units engaged in continuous combat and in the over-deployed elite Afghan National Civil Order Police, or ANCOP, remain a long-term concern, the report said.
Attrition rates have declined in recent months, but if not further reduced, thousands of new personnel will be trained merely to replace losses from attrition and the force won't be able to grow, the report said.
Caldwell said attrition rates vary widely within the security forces.
"Across both the army and police, if you take out some very localized units where it is exceptionally high, attrition is at acceptable standards," he said, adding that that attrition levels are higher in the south, the focus of the heaviest fighting.
He said attrition within the civil order police, which reached 85 percent in November 2009, is declining but remains unacceptable.
"We have literally committed that force time and time again around this country to every hot spot there was," Caldwell said, adding that the civil police now are being given more leave and training time, which has helped reduce the attrition rate to 56 percent.
The report said corruption and illiteracy also plague the Afghan security forces.
Corruption has been eased by raising salaries, issuing paychecks electronically and awarding promotions based on performance, not cronyism or favoritism.
Increasing numbers of policemen and soldiers have been enrolled in literacy courses, but the inability to read and write will stifle efforts to professionalize the forces, the report said. Ninety-three percent of police and army officers are literate, but just 35 percent of noncommissioned officers and only 11 percent of enlisted personnel can read and write.
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