Q+A: Are Afghan forces ready to take over security?

KABUL Sun Mar 20, 2011 9:45am EDT

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will announce within days the first districts and provinces where Afghanistan's army and police forces will take over security responsibility from international forces over the next few months.

Here are some questions and answers about Afghanistan's security forces and whether they are ready to take over:

HOW BIG ARE THEY?

As of January, the Afghan army numbered about 152,000 soldiers, up from 97,000 in November 2009, and there are about 118,000 police officers, up from 95,000 in November 2009, according to U.N. and NATO figures. In January 2010, international donors agreed to expand the army and police force to about 306,000 by October this year, including 171,600 soldiers and 134,000 police. In February, U.S. General William Caldwell, head of the U.S. and NATO training mission, said Afghan President Hamid Karzai had called for the expansion of Afghan forces to 370,000, but international allies had not decided yet whether to support that.

There have also been tentative plans to increase the total size of the security forces to 400,000 by 2013, including 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police. These figures are based on what commanders have said would be the minimum requirement to secure the whole country. In January, the spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry said, based on the current security situation, a target of 400,000 may even be too low if Afghans are to take over securing the whole country by the end of 2014.

But U.S. military officials have said high attrition rates, mainly from desertion and casualties for the army and police, meant the NATO training mission had to take in 111,000 recruits last year to expand the force by 79,000.

To add the 34,700 necessary to bring the security forces to a target of 305,600 by October would mean recruiting and training a further 85,900 police and soldiers, they said.

In February, Caldwell said Afghan troop level targets for this year would be met despite the current attrition rates.

WHO TRAINS THEM AND HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

Since 2002, the United States has provided more than $27 billion -- more than half of all U.S. aid spending -- for training and equipping the Afghan security forces, according to a March report by the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

Other international donors have made relatively nominal contributions. The police force suffered a serious lack of funding after Germany became the lead nation for building up the force in 2002, spending only $80 million by 2007.

In contrast, the U.S. military budgeted $2.5 billion for 2007, when it took over, and a further $800 million for 2008. President Barack Obama has called for $12.8 billion to be set aside in the 2012 fiscal year to pay for training the Afghan security forces.

But Obama is struggling to balance mounting fiscal concerns at home and many say that kind of figure is unsustainable in the long-run. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested last month one option might be to increase Afghan security force numbers and then gradually shrink numbers once the security situation allows.

Others note it would be less expensive to train and equip Afghans than keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Training for the army and police is carried out by the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) which combined in 2009 with the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), a U.S. military unit, which had been responsible for the bulk of the training. While NTM-A is a multinational mission, the vast majority of the trainers are still American.

European Union Police also has several hundred trainers and has extended its mandate for another three years. Some police training is also outsourced to private security firms.

Caldwell said last October the alliance was still short of 900 specialist instructors and had begun sending hundreds of recruits to study outside Afghanistan as a stopgap solution.

In February, he said that by late 2012, NATO would have trained enough Afghans for them to become the primary trainers.

HOW GOOD ARE THEY?

The Afghan National Army is seen as a relative success story, especially in comparison to the police. The most common complaint is that there aren't enough of them to hold territory, especially in the violent south, although Western commanders say numbers there have improved.

But a report last year by the International Crisis Group think tank said too much focus had been placed on quantity over quality and combat readiness was "undermined by weak recruitment and retention policies, inadequate logistics, insufficient training and equipment and inconsistent leadership."

The Afghan National Police is seen as inept and corrupt and has long lagged behind the training of the army.

Police are often the only face of the government in many remote areas and a chronic lack of equipment makes them vulnerable to attack -- police have suffered much higher rates of casualties than the army. Police also usually end up working in their own neighborhoods, leaving them open to bribes and the influence of local power brokers.

Illiteracy and drug abuse are also big problems. Only around 14 percent of current recruits are literate.

ARE AFGHANS READY TO TAKE OVER?

At the moment, no. Observers say not only is the 2014 deadline ambitious, but commanders have already scaled back the pace at which they intend to transfer security before then.

While one or two less-populated and relatively peaceful provinces such as Bamiyan and Badakhshan are slated to be handed over in the coming months, other areas to be handed over will likely be cities or districts.

Most of these areas will also likely be in the north and west which, although relatively calmer, have seen a spike in violence in the past year.

Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, commander of day-to-day operations for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, told Reuters last year the increase in violence in those areas would not delay the transition. When foreign troops go elsewhere, militants may launch attacks where Afghans have taken over.

Commanders say the Afghan army has made strides in recent months and started leading more operations. However, in March 2010, SIGAR said systems used to assess the security forces had led to their operational capabilities being overstated. Only 23 percent of soldiers and 12 percent of police were able to work without the help of foreign troops, it said.

Most ordinary Afghans agree. An Asia Foundation survey in November found that while 92 percent of people surveyed said they had confidence in the army and 79 percent in the police, more than two-thirds said they could not operate alone.

A United Nations survey in February found public confidence in the police force had improved by 34 percent from 2009, although the level of public confidence in the south had decreased.

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