Op-Ed

A Bright Spot Among Afghan Woes

Michael E. O’Hanlon

A good way to understand what is going right in Afghanistan, rather than fixate on the Karzai government’s limitations, is to spend a few days in the field watching the Afghan army in its recruiting, training and operational planning. I had this opportunity last week.

New recruits begin service under the auspices of the NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan, or NTM-A). This is run by Gen. Bill Caldwell, an U.S. Army three-star officer. 

He and his team have revamped the effort since arriving in late fall. And by all accounts, the U.S. Defense Department is bending over backward to help. NATO is still short on trainers, but that is largely because the Afghan army is growing fast and the previously poor ratios of trainers to soldiers are being corrected. 

Literacy training is provided to the new Afghan soldiers, for only 11 percent are estimated to be literate. Pay has roughly doubled this year, which helps with retention as well as recruiting.

There are still equipment shortages for the Afghan security forces, but that is partly due to the inevitable slowness of the U.S. contracting system. These shortfalls are now being rapidly reduced. 

New courses have been created for Afghan noncommissioned officers, the leaders crucial to any good military’s performance in the field. Graduates of Afghanistan’s military officer academy, who would have previously been steered to safe jobs by political allies, are now deployed where they are most needed — in the field. 

As a result, the Afghan army is now on track to reach its interim goal of 134,000 troops by this fall, and an ultimate size of roughly 171,000 by next year. 

The pursuit of quantity is not slowing efforts to improve the force’s quality. One indicator of the latter is the number of Afghan soldiers with basic marksmanship proficiency — previously 35 percent, now 65 percent. 

But best is how these forces are doing in the field. Formed into units and deployed, they are teamed with NATO units—an Afghan brigade of some 3,000 soldiers might be paired with a U.S. battalion of, say, 1,000, for example, though ratios can vary. And in some places, NATO continues to outnumber the Afghan security forces, at least for now. 

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Those sister units then exercise, patrol and fight together, providing on-the-job training to complement the schoolroom and basic field instruction. With the typical Afghan unit, this process continues for many months — if not a year or two. 

In some places, in fact, the development has been so rapid that Afghan Army units are planning and conducting operations on their own—even declining to ask for help in some of them. 

There is a long way to go, and the police lag the army badly among other problems, with drug abuse and corruption still big challenges. But progress is already palpable. 

The Afghan Army is the best place I found to look for good news to balance the all too common bad news in Afghanistan. A strong Afghan security force is probably the linchpin of our exit strategy, so this good news should not be underrated.