By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, July 13, 2006 – Afghan security forces are making tremendous strides, but challenges remain, the lead U.S. trainer for the force said today. Army Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin, commander of Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, said numbers for both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are on track. Equipment is flowing to the entities, and efforts are in place to "professionalize" both forces, the general said during a Pentagon news conference.
A tangible and important aspect of the capability growth in the Afghan National Army is the role the force has played in Operation Mountain Thrust, Durbin told reporters. The operation began in March and continues today. "The significance of this event cannot be overstated, as this is the first-ever large-scale operation in which the Afghan army shouldered and continues to shoulder a large portion of this operation," Durbin said. The Afghans not only planned the operation, but also have the largest contingent of troops, he noted.
The army also has made strides to professionalize the force. The Afghan defense minister has appointed the first sergeant major of the army to take the lead in developing a professional noncommissioned officer corps -- something the Afghan army has never had under previous regimes, Durbin said. The Afghan National Army is an all-volunteer force. Durbin said the Afghan people should be proud of that fact, and he said there has been no problem with recruiting.
Retention is a new issue. "(The Afghan soldiers) sign up a commitment to serve for three years," Durbin said. "So we are going through a period now where many of the battalions that were formed three years ago are coming up on the end of their enlistment. We are running a little bit above the 35 percent rate for retention. "We would like that retention to be more like 50 percent," he continued. That is the Afghan government's goal, and the Defense Ministry is studying steps to encourage soldiers to remain in the military.
Progress for the Afghan National Police has been equally impressive, he said. On June 3, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a law reforming the upper ranks of the police. “This is a significant step, because it shows the Afghan government's commitment to making the Afghan National Police a more effective force," Durbin said. "In essence, the Afghan government is putting into place a process that over time will lead to higher standards and professionalism. The Afghan National Police will be led by the most qualified leaders, and their performance will continue to be evaluated throughout the course of their public service."
There are more concrete signs of progress. The police opened a Regional Command South center in Kandahar, and Regional Command East opened in Gardez. The police also recently received or will receive more than 8,000 new vehicles, 45,000 new uniforms, millions of rounds of ammunition and thousands of weapons of all types, Durbin said. Overall, 30,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army are fully equipped and trained, the general said. Plans call for a military of 72,000 soldiers. For the Afghan National Police, about 37,000 officers are fully equipped and trained, with plans of a police force of about 62,000. In fact, 62,000 police have been trained, but all have not yet been equipped, the general said.
Absenteeism in the military and the police remains the biggest problem facing the security forces, although new laws, rank reform and pay reform are having an effect on the malady, Durbin said.
Corruption remains a huge problem for the police, and the Afghan government has promised to combat the problem. "Leader development continues to be a challenge," Durbin said. "Though recent improvements such as pay and rank reform are having the desired effect, the army and police need to continue to develop institutional solutions that will sustain production of high-quality leaders."
Durbin said the biggest challenge facing the security forces "is that they face an adaptive enemy bent on destabilizing Afghanistan through any means necessary."