Efforts to train Afghan troops slump

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - After six years and $16.5 billion, the Pentagon is falling short in its effort to train and equip Afghanistan's army and police forces to replace American and allied troops, according to a scathing new government report released yesterday.

Only two of the 105 Afghan army units are capable of performing their primary mission, the Government Accountability Office reported. It said the Afghan army and police are short of small-unit leaders and suffer from critical shortages of vehicles, weapons and radios.

The GAO, the investigations arm of Congress, said the Defense Department lacks a detailed strategy for dealing with these and other problems, one that sets benchmarks and deadlines for specific goals. Without such detailed plans, the GAO said, it is impossible to allocate funds for specific objectives and to plan to sustain the improvements

Last year, after prodding by the GAO to come up with a detailed training strategy, the Defense Department produced a five-page document which the GAO yesterday called inadequate. It said the plan "lacks sufficient detail for effective interagency planning and oversight."

The GAO pointed out that even though the Pentagon and State Department are partners in the police training program, the State Department did not participate in crafting the plan and has no plan of its own for coordinating its work with the military.

The Pentagon is responsible for organizing, training and equipping the army and police, while the State Department provides civilian contractors who teach criminal investigation, physical fitness and weapons and survival skills.

More than 40 other nations contribute to the training program, increasing the need for close planning and coordination, the GAO said.

The Defense Department, in a letter to the GAO, said it disagreed with the report's conclusions and insisted that its plans are adequate. The State Department gave no response.

Pentagon spokesmen did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

This week, Afghan forces have been sent into the fight north of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, where Taliban-led insurgents staged a prison break-out a week ago and launched a new offensive.

Details of the fighting are sketchy, but Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, senior spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, told Radio Free Afghanistan yesterday that "the Afghans are in the lead" and supported by coalition troops whose nationalities he did not specify.

Branco said the Afghan army is "demonstrating a high capability to conduct and to lead operations." He said so far there have been "only minor contacts" with insurgents.

U.S. fighter-bombers, along with British and French aircraft, are providing close air support in the region, according to U.S. Central Air Force headquarters. Many of the aircraft are based at the sprawling NATO air base just south of Kandahar.

The new report by the GAO underscored long-standing concerns of senior U.S. officials about the difficulties of fielding trained, equipped and well-led Afghan soldiers and police.

In an interview in Kabul shortly before he ended his 16-month tour in May, Gen. Dan McNeill, the top coalition military commander in Afghanistan, said Afghan troops would not be ready to take over security duties in Afghanistan until 2011. He said the key problem was an insufficient number of trainers.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a June 10 meeting with reporters that if he had any additional troops he could send to Afghanistan, he would assign them as trainers embedded with Afghan security forces as his most pressing priority.

NATO, the defense organization that agreed in 2003 to assume responsibility for security and development in Afghanistan, has fallen chronically short of providing the resources that U.S. commanders say they need there. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other senior U.S. officials have sought to pressure NATO to do more, but without significant success.

At a dinner for NATO officials in Brussels on Friday, Gates cast aside a prepared speech to scold the ministers for failing to make good on pledges to provide additional troops and trainers to Afghanistan.

"I told them that my expectations are simple. I expect government decisions and actions to match government rhetoric," Gates told reporters afterward.

"European attitudes are that they are tired of Afghanistan," said a State Department official involved in Afghanistan policy. "They feel we lost our focus when we went off to Iraq, and they are tired of helping us out," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to discuss policy.

But the problem is not just a lack of resources.

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone, who oversees training of Afghan security forces, acknowledged that the Afghan police are short of radios, body armor and other critical equipment. But he said that corruption within the police ranks, as well as potential infiltration by insurgents, makes a go-slow approach to equipping the police necessary.

"The real challenge is accountability of that equipment," Cone told a Pentagon briefing April 18. "And again, we will not issue, until we are confident that ... the equipment won't end up in the wrong hands."


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