KABUL (Reuters) - Endemic corruption is one of the main obstacles to the Afghan army and police being able to take over their country’s security duties, the U.S. general in charge of their training said Thursday.
The United States is considering sending an extra 20,000 troops to Afghanistan in the next two years to try to beat back a Taliban insurgency that is growing in strength and scope.
But commanders recognize that any “surge” in foreign troops can ultimately only buy time to expand for the Afghan army and police to learn to stand on their own feet.
“The final point is corruption, corruption, corruption; it is endemic,” U.S. General Robert Cone, commander of the force that trains the Afghan army and police, told Reuters in an interview.
“It has amazed me in my time here how Afghans will hurt other Afghans — when they have been given a great opportunity to ... run a program that is going to help so many — ... and (instead) basically take care of themselves first.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on a visit to Afghanistan Thursday that he wanted to speed up efforts to double the size of the 68,000-strong Afghan army.
“I’m often asked ‘How fast you can grow the Afghan army and police?’,” Cone said.
“I will tell you that one of my hard and fast rules is that we have to do it in a responsible manner. We have to know where the weapons are ... We have to know where the equipment is.
“There has to be accountability and a payroll system ... I think it holds us back from really going as fast as we would like because we have responsibilities to our taxpayers,” he said at his Kabul headquarters.
The Afghan army is due to be expended to 134,000 troops by 2012, at a cost of $17 billion, to take over security duties from a NATO-led force spearheaded by the United States, Britain, Germany, Canada, France and Italy.
The cost of sustaining the force will rise to $3 billion a year from $2.2 billion at present, Cone said, while Afghan government revenues totaled only $715 million last year.
“Clearly Afghanistan cannot afford the army it has right now ... so why give them more?” Cone asked.
“Well there are some pretty good arguments that having an Afghan do it is a heck of a lot cheaper than having a Westerner do it ... Can we really afford not to develop them?”
Cone said the Afghan army was a “huge success,” and now carrying out more than half the combat in Afghanistan.
He said there had been progress in training the police and in rooting out some corruption and malpractice such as keeping dead officers on the payroll.
He said all sides recognized the need for more police officers, “but the fact is we’re not going to be able to get to it until they clean up what they’re doing right now.”
Senior officers and Interior Ministry officials are renowned for taking a cut of the salaries of policemen, who then exact bribes from the populace to make up their pay. Public confidence in the force is undermined and the Taliban gain support.
“It literally has been fighting guys to take their hands out of the policeman’s wallet,” Cone said.
He said NATO had plans to arm militias representative of local communities to safeguard some areas of Afghanistan.
Instead of simply arming tribes, the idea is that district governors and elders will take charge of the militias under Afghan army supervision.
But the plan is fraught with danger in Afghanistan’s complex web of tribal and ethnic rivalries, and will initially be tested along the main highway from Kabul to Kandahar, in areas controlled by U.S. forces.
“We’re moving down to the water’s edge and putting our toe in and seeing how it works,” said Cone.
While Washington works on sending more forces, the Taliban have hit back by attacking supplies to NATO and Afghan troops coming into the landlocked country from neighboring Pakistan.
This week Taliban militants torched some 150 supply trucks destined for the Afghan army in Pakistan.
But Cone said only 30 armored Humvees had been destroyed out of 4,000 destined for the Afghan army, and on average only 2 percent of supplies were lost in transit though Pakistan.
He said the army’s bureaucratic logistics system was a bigger obstacle to supplying troops around Afghanistan.
“It’s serious, it’s expensive, but as long as we are dealing with it, it’s not like the mother ship sank.”