Will Afghan Forces Be Prepared By 2014?

The American strategy to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces by 2014 depends on one key unknown: whether Afghan military and police forces will be up to the job by then. Host Robert Siegel talks to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who is in Afghanistan and has the latest on the quality of Afghan troops, as well as recent disagreements between Afghanistan's president and the top American military commander.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The planned drawdown in Afghanistan depends in large part on the ability of Afghan troops to take over in 2014. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in southern Afghanistan and has been speaking with American soldiers and Marines who train the Afghan forces. He joins us now from Kandahar. And, Tom, how are the Afghan forces performing?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, overall, Robert, I think they're, at very best, junior partners. Some areas are doing okay, other areas are really doing not much at all. The important thing about the Afghan forces is they accompany American troops when they go on military operations into the villages. And that's clearly where the Afghans can help, talking with local villagers.

But they have very serious problems. There's a high desertion rate. We were with an American army unit in Kandahar province and the captain told us, the Afghan company he patrolled with lost 80 of its 120 soldiers. He said they just deserted.

There's also an illiteracy problem. Eighty percent of this country is illiterate, so the Americans have to set up special classes in basic reading and writing for the soldiers and the police. Also, the Afghans can't supply themselves in the field. They have no process for getting water and food and ammunition, so they go to the Americans for help. And we talked to a Marine captain who said, listen, I'll give them water, but not anything else. He said, I'm not Santa Claus.

SIEGEL: Well, 2014, the deadline, is still four years off. What do people think there? Is there any way to judge if these forces can actually be ready to take over by that time?

BOWMAN: Well, it's possible. And four years is a long way off, of course, and that would give them time to build up their junior leaders especially. But be careful by the term theyre using - takeover. I think even if all works as planned by 2014, and that's frankly a very big if, there will still be a lot of American troops here helping with training and especially logistics.

SIEGEL: Well, if the prospects are for the Afghan forces are so uncertain, why set a 2014 deadline?

BOWMAN: Well, in a word, it's politics. The Obama administration has to show the NATO nations that this Afghanistan mission has an end to it. The Canadian troops are now leaving. So too are the Dutch. There's a lot of opposition to this in Europe and also, of course, in the United States. So, there's a lot of pressure to show movement and progress here.

And the American and NATO leaders will also start talking about turning over provinces to the Afghan troops. But that's really in name only. They're talking about thinning out American and NATO forces in those provinces, and not really a full turnover.

SIEGEL: Now, one other point, Tom, there's a new disagreement between the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and the U.S. commander general, David Petraeus. It's over the presence of U.S. troops and especially the use of night raids. What is the problem with night raids?

BOWMAN: Well, this isn't a new complaint. But Karzai is rightly concerned about it. The night raids are more likely to get civilians killed, mistakes can be made. You go to the wrong house or the wrong compound. But the U.S. sees this as critical in their efforts to really bring the Taliban to its knees.

A NATO officer I spoke with in Kabul says there have been more than 1,000 raids by U.S. Special Forces troops over just the past several months. Hundreds of Taliban have been killed or captured in those raids. So I think Karzai's complaints will, frankly, be dismissed.

SIEGEL: But when you say that Karzai's concerns will be dismissed, are night raids in fact, as I gather Karzai would have it, working against public support for the government and in favor of support for the Taliban?

BOWMAN: Well, it depends what happens on those night raids. If civilians get killed, if there's a mistake made, if there's a botched raid, clearly that plays into the hands of the Taliban. And there's been a somewhat of an increase in civilian deaths with the additional 30,000 troops. When there are military operations, there are mistakes and we are seeing an uptick in civilian deaths.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: Okay.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman speaking to us from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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