The Challenges Of Training Afghan Forces

Training local army and police forces is a key element of the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. But many Marines on the ground say Afghan troops are often unreliable or even dangerous. Michele Norris talks to Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who oversaw a similar mission — the training of Iraqi troops and police.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A shortage of dependable partners in the Afghan government isn't the only problem General David Petraeus now inherits. To meet President Obama's July 2011 timeline to begin with withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan, he'll also need to speed and improve the training of Afghan security forces.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

To get a sense of how that effort is going, we turn once again to the man responsible for the training program in Iraq. Lieutenant General James Dubik oversaw the U.S. training program for Iraqi troops. He's now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. Welcome back to the program.

Lieutenant General JAMES DUBIK (Institute for the Study of War): Thank you, Michele, my pleasure.

NORRIS: Now, when we last talked to you, your assessment of the training program could well be described as hopeful skepticism. How are things going now?

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: I put myself in the same category. The reason that I say hopeful is the reverse of the trends of last year in the Afghan security forces where there was a lot of attrition and there wasn't much recruiting this time last year. Whereas this time this year, attrition has been cut in half and the number of officers and officer development programs are expanded. So all that leads me to the hopeful side.

On the skeptical side, it's still very difficult to generate leaders fast enough. It's still difficult to produce forces on the timelines necessary.

NORRIS: There are certain metrics the military will look at in assessing the success of this operation. Strength, discipline, literacy and dual loyalties. Let's very quickly tick through just those four things. Strength.

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: Strength is numbers. And that, I think, is going relatively well.

NORRIS: Discipline.

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: Discipline is mixed. I think on the Afghan National Army side it's pretty good. On the uniform local police, not good at all.

NORRIS: Literacy.

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: Literacy is bad across the whole country. Now, literacy training is mandatory in both military and police training.

NORRIS: Dual loyalties. That's another big challenge.

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: Dual loyalties, I think, is a reflection of the overall state of governance. Loyalties will shift when people see that the legitimate government of Afghanistan will stay.

NORRIS: You noted that you're hopeful, but you're a bit skeptical also. I just want to put to you a quote that was reported yesterday in the Marine Corps Times. Someone was quoted as saying, "many Afghan National Army troops who work and patrol with U.S. Marines are considered a nuisance at best and a danger at worst. Many refuse to go out on patrol, smoke hashish and sleep while on guard."

If the U.S. does begin drawing down troops at this time next year, will there be a capable force to fill that void? It sounds like there's a very steep hill to climb before you get to success.

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: Well, Michele, the hill is steep, but when 2011 drawdown begins, there'll be a rational process to select where that withdrawal begins. And it'll be in areas where the kind of force that you just described is not present. It won't be a blanket all-forces-withdraw. And this is very reflective of our development in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. You just have to stay at the iterative improvement. Weed out those soldiers and leaders that are not performing. Better partner with the Afghans so that they continue to learn on the job. And improve quality in an iterative way, not an absolute way.

NORRIS: This quote is not unusual, I mean.

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: No.

NORRIS: The reporting on this is quite common. And the U.S. forces in this case are actually living with the Afghan forces. They're training with them. They're out in the field. So they see them at their best and at their worst.

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: At their worst. Exactly. And this partnership is actually a very, very important aspect of developing the Afghan national security forces. You can produce soldiers of a certain quality, leaders of a certain quality in the training base. But once their fielded, they need continued professionalization.

We did not have a partnership program a year ago. And now the partnership program is very robust. As a result, we're seeing a much truer picture of actual capabilities.

NORRIS: Does the timeline for withdrawing troops next July still make sense?

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: Well, I have to say, in my mind, the short answer is yes. But it's a yes, but. If it's the case, as the president announced, that in 2011 we'll make an assessment and we'll begin the drawdown where we can, then it makes perfect sense.

But that withdrawal will be drawn out for a number of years afterwards, just as you saw in Iraq. The initial withdrawal is actually relatively early in 2009. But to bring them back at a pace where you don't lose the gains that you fought for, that's a different story.

NORRIS: Lieutenant General James Dubik, always good to talk to you, thanks so much for coming back.

Lt. Gen. DUBIK: Thank you again.

NORRIS: That's Lieutenant General James Dubik. He oversaw the U.S. training program for Iraqi troops. He's now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

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