MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
President Obama and other NATO leaders will be in Lisbon later this week. The top item on the agenda is Afghanistan. President Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, made clear yesterday that the U.S. has a timetable in mind to transfer security to the Afghans and end U.S. combat operations by the close of 2014. There is a catch, of course. The Afghan army and police have to be ready to take control.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan trying to judge just how ready Afghan forces are. He's been traveling in Helmand province, in the south of the country. There, Tom met up with two American Marine units - one working with the Afghan army, the other with Afghan police.
Unidentified Person: (Speaking foreign language)
TOM BOWMAN: It's market day in the Garmsir District, in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. There are lambs, freshly slaughtered, hanging by hooks. Mounds of nuts and bananas. Colorful scarves and cheap plastic toys. And down the center of the street, walking through the thick crowd is a man named Dost Muhammed. He's cradling an AK-47 and wearing the blue uniform of the Afghan police.
Mr. DOST MUHAMMED (Afghan Policeman): (Through Translator) Garmsir is much better from last year, no Taliban in the area. No problems.
BOWMAN: Muhammed talks like a seasoned veteran, but he's just 18 years old, with only six months on the force. He strolls with a casual indifference.
A few yards behind him is Marine Captain Matthew Taylor, who heads a police training team. Unlike Muhammed, Taylor stops to talk with shop owners and tells speeding motorcyclists to slow down.
Unidentified Man #1: How about here? Like good stop.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
Captain MATTHEW TAYLOR (U.S. Marine Corps): Could you let the police in front know?
BOWMAN: Taylor says his problem here is not the Taliban insurgency. It's making sure cops like Muhammed learn how to be good policemen.
Capt. TAYLOR: My problems are, hey, let's make sure we're standing our post the right way, you know? Stand up, turn off your cell phone, that kind of stuff.
BOWMAN: Captain Taylor's problems don't end there. He's also working to double the number of police here, build a new training center and recruit from a population that's no more than 20 percent literate.
Capt. TAYLOR: Literacy is a problem but we're - it's a problem we're also working to solve. We have daily literacy classes going for police. Afghanistan as a whole, as you know, is a fairly illiterate country, but that's not because they don't want to be literate. It's - they just - the last couple of years, they've had lack of opportunity.
BOWMAN: But it's in the next several years, by the end of 2014, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants his country's police and army to take over security duties from the U.S. and other NATO countries. And that timetable -and the struggle to reach it - will be among the discussions during the NATO meeting later this week.
Italian Brigadier General Carmelo Burgio just wrapped up a year in charge of training Afghan police, a force plagued by drug use and theft. At his office in Kabul, he acknowledged that building an able Afghan security force - and having the Afghans take charge of that effort - may take longer than politicians expect.
Brigadier General CARMELO BURGIO (NATO): To train a young guy to work as a patrolman, I need a couple of months - three months, four months, six months. But if I want to change the mindset of the system, I need some years.
BOWMAN: How many years?
Brig. Gen. BURGIO: If we talk about training, I think that in five, 10 years, we will be able to reorganize the system.
BOWMAN: Burgio can point to successes. His goal for last month was to have 109,000 police recruits around the country. He has 120,000. But numbers are just one part of the story. It became clear, in numerous interviews with Americans and Afghans, that the Afghan police and army are, as one officer put it, a mixed bag. Some units perform well, others don't.
General Burgio says part of that problem - at least for the police - is that NATO's focus for years was almost exclusively on training the Afghan army.
Brig. Gen. BURGIO: With the army, the military part of the coalition start to work effectively in 2002. With the police, we start working effectively in 2009 - in the end of 2009.
Unidentified Man #3: Hey, did (unintelligible) get a hold of you?
Unidentified Man #4: Yeah.
Unidentified Man #3: Okay.
BOWMAN: Americans have been training the Afghan military for years. Here in Helmand, Lieutenant Tyler Johnston is just the latest in a long line of young officers working to teach Afghan soldiers. Johnston operates from a remote outpost, off a dirt road the Americans call redskins. It's just a few miles from the Garmsir market, where Captain Taylor was working with the police. Lieutenant Johnston has just a handful of Marines advising this company of more than 100 Afghan soldiers. They're more experienced than the other units we saw. These afghan soldiers, Johnston says, plan and lead most of the patrols around the villages.
Lieutenant TYLER JOHNSTON (U.S. Marine Corps): I'm not worried about them dropping their weapon and running away in a gunfight. I mean, they're very aggressive, tenacious and guys who are proud of their heritage and proud of their culture. And they want to do the right things, and they just need to be guided in that direction.
BOWMAN: The army has its share of problems, starting with attrition. One U.S. Army officer says the Afghan unit he's patrolling with has lost about two-thirds of its soldiers. They just quit. But Johnston say his greatest obstacle is the Afghans inability to supply themselves in the field.
Lt. JOHNSTON: Just like the everyday things that they need, and it will be a list of two or three things every time we sit down that they need - that they'll need. Like, we need a tarp to cover up our trucks, or we need batteries, or we need more bottled water. So they need to be able to call their supply line and be able to get the things that they need pushed down to them just the way Marine battalions operate.
BOWMAN: Johnston says he gives the Afghans bottled water to keep them from drinking out of a nearby canal, but he has to draw the line somewhere.
Lt. JOHNSTON: And when they ask me for something, I can't say, all right, I'll give it to you. Like, I'm not Santa Claus.
BOWMAN: Officials say it will be years before the Afghan forces can supply themselves, without substantial help from the Americans. Still, Johnston's boss, Major Ian Campbell, says the Afghan army has come a long way.
Major IAN CAMPBELL (U.S. Marine Corps): If you look at the longer-term picture, if you take a step back and you look at, say, them now compared to a year ago, it would be pretty astounding, the results.
BOWMAN: When can they take over, provide security for their country? The target date they're looking at is 2014. Is that doable?
Maj. CAMPBELL: I think that is doable, actually. And, you know, it's going to take some help, certainly. But I think if they get a little bit of breathing room, they get a little bit of time, I think that's certainly within reason.
BOWMAN: And that will be part of the discussion for NATO leaders this week: After nine years of conflict, how much more help, how much more time should be devoted to Afghanistan?
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Helmand province, Afghanistan.