Training may be the U.S. way out of Afghanistan, but hurdles high
One of the strongest messages that U.S. officials tried to convey during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Afghanistan this week was that the American mission in the war-torn country is changing from combat to training, so that Afghan forces are ready to provide security for their own country after decades of upheaval, invasion and foreign occupation.
Biden made a stop at the Kabul military training center, an expansive site about six miles northeast of the city center, where U.S. forces are teaching members of the Afghan National Army how to be part of a modern military. On 22,000 acres of bare terrain surrounded by mountains and dotted with cement walls and the ruins of Soviet-era military equipment, Afghan soldiers are learning everything from marksmanship to logistics. The facility has even had two all-women officer training classes, the first in the deeply traditional Muslim country, not for combat but for functions such as finance and logistics.
Biden spoke to trainers, toured the grounds and watched a group of the Afghan trainees storm a building. He spoke to each of the men, who greeted him, in turn, by standing to attention, shouting their names and giving their battalion numbers.
The soldiers are eager. They are paid for their time at the facility. “We don’t have a problem finding recruits,” said Lieutenant Colonel David Simons, director of public affairs for the NATO-Afghan training mission. On any day, there are 11,000 Afghan soldiers at the facility. And training in the more basic skills is already being put into Afghan hands, with international forces focused mostly on more specialized areas. “This is the year we’re really turning that over to Afghans,” said Captain Stefan Hasselblad, another spokesman for the base.
It may seem like wishful thinking to expect a force of newly minted Afghan soldiers to provide security in a country where the world’s largest and most modern military still struggles to control the violence after more than nine years of conflict. President Barack Obama’s most recent review of the war — released last month — noted improvement but said there is a hard road ahead. Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst level since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
Wishful thinking or not, the training has to go on, not just for Afghanistan’s future but to placate the U.S. public which is weary of a war that is approaching the 10-year mark – at a price tag now well over $100 billion per year. The Obama administration is committed to starting to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning in July. The longer term goal is to hand over all of Afghanistan’s security responsibilities to its government by 2014.
The trainers acknowledge that the Afghan soldiers present challenges almost unknown among American forces. Hasselblad said the biggest challenge is the country’s overwhelming rate of illiteracy. Ninety-five percent of the would-be troops cannot read at a minimum level, he said, and have to be taught enough reading so they can handle what he termed “basic soldier skills,” such as recording the serial number of a weapon or reading a map.
Photo credit: Reuters/Omar Sobhani (Biden visits Afghan National Army soldiers at training center in Kabul)