For U.S., Vast Challenge To Expand Afghan Forces President Obama's strategy for Afghanistan includes an ambitious plan to churn out thousands of new army and police officers to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. But the rapid buildup could create many more problems than it solves.
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For U.S., Vast Challenge To Expand Afghan Forces

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For U.S., Vast Challenge To Expand Afghan Forces

For U.S., Vast Challenge To Expand Afghan Forces

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

For American troops, getting out of Afghanistan means training Afghans to take their place, which is why U.S. military officials aim to double the Afghan security forces in a very short time. They're hoping to bring the army and police up to 400,000 in just two years. All this week, we're looking at U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

This morning, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports on the many challenges of putting together an effective Afghan security force.

Unidentified Man #1: Come on, you can do it.

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Unidentified Man #1: Come on.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Christmas came early this year for American and NATO military commanders advising Afghanistan's national security forces. Twice as many recruits joined the Afghan army in the first two weeks of December than during the entire previous month. Among them are hundreds of young men at the military training center, here in the hills of eastern Kabul.

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NELSON: Afghan commanders predict that pay raise and signing bonuses that go into effect this week will lure more recruits. The raise means an average Afghan soldier and police officer will take home about $250 a month. The Taliban pays about $50 more than that, but Afghan recruiters say the surge is less about bonuses and more the result of Afghanistan's brutal winter, which limits the fighting here.

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NELSON: Boot camp, like this one in Kabul, appeals to recruits. Here they get regular meals, a warm place to sleep, free socks and new boots.

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NELSON: That's more than most get on the outside.

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NELSON: But what the Afghan government gets in return is hardly ideal. After seven years and billions of dollars, international efforts have so far failed to create a modern Afghan army. The effort has, for one, been stymied by the low caliber of the recruits. Less than one out of every nine Afghan soldiers can read and write. Police officers are also largely illiterate, and about 17 percent of them test positive for illegal drugs.

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NELSON: Another issue is diversity. On paper, the security forces today more or less reflect Afghanistan's many ethnic groups, but recruiters admit that far too few men from volatile, Taliban-dominated areas are signing up, like from Kandahar, the second most important province in Afghanistan politically. Western military officials are still struggling to figure out the right formula for how best to train and deploy Afghan troops.

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NELSON: The recent surge could help, says British Brigadier General Simon Levy, who heads the Western advisory group to the Afghan army.

Brigadier General SIMON LEVY (NATO Military Commander, Afghanistan): Because we are getting more recruits, we can afford to perhaps be a little bit more ruthless about who we send back a term if they're not good enough.

NELSON: To create the expanded forces they are seeking, they've cut training back from 10 to eight weeks. Levy says the training the Afghans no longer get was useless to most of them, anyway.

Brig. Gen. SIMON LEVY: Since they can't read, there is no point doing map reading with a soldier. Most things we do are oriented toward practical soldiering. So when they're on the range, you have to teach a soldier how to pull the trigger by squeezing rather than pulling.

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NELSON: For this exercise at the Kabul Center in which recruits storm a building in a mock raid, Levy says they still plan to help soldiers learn to read at least a little, so they can do simple things like identify the number on the butt of their rifle. There are other problems that won't be as easy to fix. One is retention. Soldiers who return to their villages after one fighting season often never return. And while dropout and absenteeism rates reported by U.S. and Afghan officials are somewhere around 20 percent, the actual numbers are very likely much higher. That's because many soldiers and policemen exist only as names on paper, created by local commanders to collect additional salaries.

Christine Fair is an assistant professor at Georgetown University, who coauthored a U.S. Institute of Peace study earlier this year on Afghan security forces. She estimates that more than a quarter of the police officers are so-called ghost police.

Professor CHRISTINE FAIR (Georgetown University): Now, the ghost police are a couple of things. There's folks who don't show up. There are folks who are on the pay-roll, but someone's getting their pay. So when I see the number like 95,000, which is the number in the inventory as of December 10, I got a lot of questions about that number.

NELSON: Nor do Afghan citizens necessarily trust the Afghan security forces they encounter. Police officers, for example, are widely seen as corrupt.

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NELSON: On a recent afternoon in this Taliban-rife district outside Kandahar city, these Afghan soldiers weren't making many friends, either.

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NELSON: Children in one village in Arghandab who try to get too close to an arriving American development team were run off by menacing Afghan soldiers with guns. One soldier searching villagers pocketed an orange he found on a young boy, then hit the youth with a stick.

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NELSON: The Afghan lieutenant who heads the platoon didn't behave much better during a meeting with local elders.

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NELSON: He interrupts the district governor with a plea to the locals to report any bombs or militants they come across. The lieutenant, who's from an ethnic group not found in this province, speaks to the villagers in Dari instead of their language, Pashto. The village elders avert their eyes, a sign that the officer is an unwelcome stranger.

There is another problem that has to be solved if the Afghan forces are ever to stand on their own: getting the most basic supplies to soldiers and police officers in the field.

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NELSON: Like here at this mountaintop Afghan outpost called Gaway, overlooking Pakistan.

Earlier this year, Afghan border policemen stationed here struggled through snow a yard deep.

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NELSON: The policemen complained they weren't given shovels to deal with the heavy snow here, let along given enough wood or generator fuel to heat and light their outpost.

Back in Kabul, American military officials say the problem isn't so much that the supplies don't exist. It's more a matter of getting them pushed through the pipeline.

American Brigadier General David Hogg is the deputy commander of the international coalition arm responsible for training the Afghan army.

Brigadier General DAVID HOGG (Deputy commander of the international coalition arm training Afghan army): What we see is when it gets to the corps level, the hesitancy to issue out equipment. There is a hoarding mentality. So, yeah, it is a challenge. It is something we're working with the leadership on. And it's going to take a lot work to move it forward.

NELSON: Such challenges have to be overcome, and quickly, General Stanley McChrystal told his commanders in a recent video conference call.

General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Commander of American Forces, Afghanistan): At the end of the day, Afghanistan must be defended by Afghans, and that's what we will build with enabling the Afghans to do that over the coming months and years.

NELSON: But many others, like author Christine Fair, say American political and military leaders should consider whether a rapid expansion even makes sense.

Prof. FAIR: In some sense, we're just having to make a margarita out of a bunch of really lousy lemons that we've inherited through, you know, the years of the Bush administration and the neglect of building a competent force.

NELSON: She also criticizes the White House for not putting enough pressure on Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan, which receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid despite continued evidence that some of its security forces harbor and support Afghan insurgents.

Prof. FAIR: If the Pakistan government was not absolutely dedicated to continuing to support the Taliban, I think one could reasonably ask: Would you need an ANSF this size?

NELSON: An ANSF, or Afghan National Security Force that costs $10 billion a year, that is money the Afghan government doesn't have. Afghan President Hamid Karzai predicts the West will have to fund the force for the next 20 years.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we look at corruption throughout Afghanistan and hear how U.S. taxpayer dollars are inadvertently helping the Taliban.

Unidentified Woman: Because they control the roads, because they controls so much of Afghanistan now, they're able to extort money from subcontractors who general work for Americans or French or Germans.

MONTAGNE: For more on our series on Afghanistan, visit

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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