Support Expected for Plan to Beef Up Afghan Forceshttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government and its international partners are set to approve a plan that would expand the nation’s army and police forces to up to 378,000 personnel by October 2012, a 42 percent increase over the current level, Western and Afghan officials say.
The plan, which is pending, reflects growing confidence in a training mission that for years has been hobbled by illiteracy, drug use, corruption and high desertion and resignation rates among the Afghan security forces. At one point in 2009, more Afghan soldiers were abandoning the army than joining it.
Many of those problems remain, and the effort has been slowed by the inability — or unwillingness — of the NATO allies to fulfill their commitments to provide trainers. The mission responsible for fielding army and police units remains about 700 trainers short.
But success in meeting recruiting benchmarks in the last year has led to optimism among NATO officials that the ambitious goal can be met.
According to a Western official and an Afghan official familiar with the plan, the request is expected to be approved on Tuesday at a meeting of the standing security committee of the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, a high-level governing body made up of officials from Afghanistan, the United Nations and allied nations that is charged with the oversight of the nation’s development strategy. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to speak publicly ahead of the formal action.
The official targets for the ultimate size of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police have steadily increased as the country’s security needs have evolved against a stubbornly resilient enemy. NATO officials hope the latest increase will help secure what they call an “irreversible transition” in 2014, when coalition forces are scheduled to turn over security responsibilities to the Afghan government.
Increasing the size and professionalism of the Afghan security forces is a pillar of the Obama administration’s plans to scale down the United States’ combat operations here over the next four years. The administration cited the growth and improved training and effectiveness of the security forces in its December strategy review, which reported that the United States was on target to begin reducing its military presence in July.
But the planned increase will mean billions more in spending to train and maintain the security forces, and 95 percent of that cost is borne by the United States. Between 2003 and 2009, the United States spent $20 billion to finance the Afghan Army and police. A growing force, pay increases that were intended to retain soldiers and police officers, and the costs of improved training and equipment drove the total to $9 billion in 2010, and $11.6 billion is budgeted for this year.
In January 2010, the security panel approved a plan to increase the army to 171,000 soldiers and the police to 134,000 officers by October 2011. A year later, the army has 149,500 soldiers and the police 117,000 officers; both are ahead of the pace needed to reach the October targets, said Col. John Ferrari of the United States Army, who is deputy commander for programs of the NATO training mission.
“That’s important, because last January when these numbers were approved, there were very few people who thought that could be achieved,” Colonel Ferrari said. He declined to speculate about whether the new goals would be approved on Tuesday.
Thomas Vietor, a White House spokesman, said the Afghan security force “will continue to grow in 2011,” but, he added, “there have been no decisions on growth beyond 2011.”
The formal requests for more troops will be made by the Afghan Defense Ministry, which oversees the army, and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police.
At a minimum, the plan calls for 23,000 new forces each for the army and the police by October 2012. They can expand by up to an additional 13,000 forces each if they meet certain recruitment and retention goals, Colonel Ferrari said.
In the army, the newcomers would be used to expand the support staff, including engineering and signals units, and combat units to “thicken the force,” Colonel Ferrari said. The increase in the police forces would add 5,000 members to the Afghan National Civil Order Police, which is designed to deal with civil disorder, hostage situations and riots. The additions would increase that force to 23,000 members by the end of 2012.
The need for additional security forces has raised concerns among some Afghans that the government will conscript solders. Gen. Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said rumors of such a move were not true. “We are ahead of our goals,” he said. “There is no discussion of conscription.”
One factor that has helped recruiting, Colonel Ferrari said, has been a 50 percent increase in pay. Police officers and soldiers now make, on average, $165 a month; forces serving in Helmand Province and other dangerous places get an additional $75 in hostile environment pay. “What we were paying was well below a living wage,” he said.
Improved training, including classes to help security forces read and write at a first-grade level, has also spurred recruitment, the colonel said. Many of the recruits are “very smart,” he said, but are not able to count or write their name.
“Not only does it get people to come in,” he said, “but by making them literate you get a better, higher quality soldier and policeman.”
The classes, he added, give many of them a “better vision of the future for themselves, their villages and for their children.”
The requests for new forces are being made during what is shaping up to be a violent winter, a time when fighting typically slows.
On Sunday, nine civilians were killed when their taxi struck a roadside bomb in the Pul-e Khumi district of Baghlan Province. Six civilians, all members of one family, died the day before when their vehicle hit a bomb in the Sangin district of Helmand Province.On Thursday, seven drivers carrying passengers on a shopping trip to Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province, were apprehended by insurgents and interrogated, local authorities said. They were released a short time later, but on the way the back, all seven were killed by a remote-controlled bomb, the authorities said.