Afghanistan seeks 400,000-strong force to relieve Western troops

KABUL Thu May 21, 2009 6:52am EDT

An Afghan National Army soldier walks during a special operation at Sanjaray in Kandahar Province, May 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

An Afghan National Army soldier walks during a special operation at Sanjaray in Kandahar Province, May 16, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva

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KABUL (Reuters) - The international community should pay to more than double the size of Afghanistan's army and police force so that Western forces can go home, the country's defense minister has said in an interview.

Afghanistan now has almost 90,000 soldiers and a similar number of police, as well as about 80,000 Western troops trying to stabilize the country and fight the resurgent Taliban more than seven years since the militants were driven from power.

Each of those three forces is due to expand to about 100,000 by the end of this year. But that will still leave Afghanistan with only about half of the security forces of Iraq, a country with roughly the same population.

Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said the small size of the domestic security force was the reason militants have been able to hold sway over whole sections of the country.

"We can take any territory. We don't have enough to hold it," Wardak said in an interview this week.

Counter-insurgency warfare textbooks suggest that Afghanistan should have about 600,000 soldiers and police to protect the population, he said, adding while that was probably impossible, the country needed at least 400,000-450,000.

"The enemy is counting on one thing. They are counting on that sooner or later the international community will lose its interest, that they can be waited out," he said.

The new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan envisions training more Afghan soldiers and police, although U.S. officials have not provided firm figures for how big they anticipate the Afghan security forces will eventually grow.

Washington is sending 4,000 additional instructors to Afghanistan this year, with particular focus on training police.

DEPENDENT ON DONORS

Unlike Iraq, which pays for its army and police from its own oil income, Afghanistan depends on international donors not only to train its troops but also to pay and equip them.

Wardak said it was still "about 70 times" cheaper for Western countries to train, equip and pay an Afghan soldier than to dispatch one of their own.

In addition to more manpower, Afghanistan needs its own armored vehicles to protect its troops from roadside bombs and its own air transport and attack capabilities if Western troops are to be able to withdraw, he added.

Wardak said the next few months should see decisive progress in the south of the country as thousands of U.S. reinforcements arrive. He estimated the area under control of militants would shrink by about 50 percent by the end of this year.

But he also said the next few months would be violent as insurgents resort to suicide and roadside bombings and occasional spectacular "commando raids" on Afghan towns, and that the reinforcements will not bring a complete victory this year.

"The enemy will not consent to make (themselves) available to be destroyed. They will be elusive. It will take not one crushing blow," he said.

Asked about the choice of former special forces commander Stanley McChrystal to head U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Wardak said the new general's unconventional background could prove useful.

McChrystal has been named to replace General David McKiernan, who has a more conventional resume commanding ground forces.

"The type of environment might be more suited to the experience of this new general," Wardak said, although he also praised McKiernan as an "excellent soldier."

But he said there were limits to the effectiveness of raids against "high-value targets" -- McChrystal's signature tactic commanding secret units from 2003-2008.

"Targeting high-value targets is not going to bring us success alone," he said. "Focusing only on counter-terrorism is not going to be the solution."

(Editing by Paul Tait)

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