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NATO shifts training focus to Afghan needs

KABUL (Reuters) - The NATO-led alliance fighting in Afghanistan has switched approach in training Afghan forces, a U.S. major general said, in the face of escalating violence and a looming 2014 deadline to hand over security responsibilities.

Questions about the United States’ success in the increasingly unpopular war were raised earlier this month when the Taliban killed 30 U.S. troops in a helicopter, the largest single loss for foreign forces in the 10 years of war.

That added to growing unease in Washington and Europe about the costly war that has caused lawmakers to question whether bringing all NATO combat troops home by 2014 is fast enough.

NATO’s resource training of Afghan police and army needed an overhaul and has changed its focus to Afghan needs over the past year, said U.S. Major General Peter Fuller, the deputy commander for programs and resources within the NATO training mission.

“We’re going in the other direction,” Fuller said in an interview late on Wednesday at the mission’s headquarters in Camp Eggers in Kabul, a sprawling base home to some 2,500 NATO trainers.

The training mission was now focusing on the ‘Afghan right’, a term coined by Fuller which means approaching issues and thinking of them in the way Afghans do instead of applying U.S. methods, saving money and ensuring sustainability.

Talking of NATO’s previous approach, Fuller said: “I don’t think it was incorrect, it was probably not just as appropriate as it should have been.”

“Now we’re realizing that as easy as it would be for us to do something, it’d be better for us to train them (Afghans) ... It evolved where I think we became more conscious,” Fuller said.

Critics warn of slow progress by NATO in training Afghanistan’s poorly-equipped and largely illiterate police and army, and say security gains cannot be upheld.

Implemented over the last year, the mission is now teaching local forces how to maintain their own weapons and equipment, instead of “dragging them, or saying follow me,” Fuller said.

With an eye on sustainability, Afghan army uniforms are also now made in Afghanistan, instead of being flown in from the United States, and houses and offices are being built to Afghan standards, copying their lifestyles and set-up, as opposed to infrastructure identical to that of the United States.

Regional hospitals are also learning how to cope on their own, instead of relying on U.S. medical centres to bail them out, Fuller said.

A surge in foreign troop deaths is being matched by record casualties among civilians, and come amid the first phase of a gradual transition to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan soldiers and police, a process which kicked off in several areas last month.

The commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, U.S. General John Allen, praised the first phase of the transition process on Thursday in a statement commemorating Afghanistan’s 92nd year of independence from British rule.

“These Afghan forces will continue to grow in both quantity and quality .... (becoming) capable of independently defeating the insurgents wherever they may try to hide,” Allen said.

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