By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 28, 2008 - Progress in training and equipping Afghan national security forces has been "pretty astounding," but could proceed faster if not for a shortfall in military trainers, the task force commander overseeing the effort told Pentagon reporters today. Army Brig. Gen. Robert E. Livingston, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, described momentum built during the past six months to bring training opportunities for Afghan police more on line with that being provided to the Afghan army.
Police mentor teams were dispatched into the districts of Afghanistan's provinces during the summer, with big results, he said. Two major initiatives are paying off as well. A focused district development plan is delivering intensive training to eight police districts at a time, with the goal of reaching all 395 districts within the next four years. In addition, 15 small training centers have been established around the country to provide a "training surge" of intensive police mentoring and individualized training.
As police training accelerates, the Afghan army is making great strides, Livingston said. Its numbers have climbed to almost 50,000, with three additional brigades now in the force structure. More than 7,000 noncommissioned officers were added to the ranks during the past year.
Problems that plagued the Afghan army are being corrected as well, Livingston said. The "away without leave" rate has dropped from 18 percent to less than 8 percent, and the "present for duty" rate has increased from 55 percent to more than 85 percent.
As promising as these developments are, Livingston said, they could move ahead faster if not for a shortfall of about 3,500 military trainers. Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix stands at 53 percent of its authorized strength.
Even with the influx of about 1,000 U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, to serve as trainers in the southwestern districts, Livingston said the task force will continue to operate with severe shortages.
The United States currently provides about 65 percent of all Afghan army trainers and most of the police trainers. The second-largest international contributors are Canada and Great Britain.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has raised the issue repeatedly during meetings with his NATO counterparts and is expected to urge greater NATO contributions again during next week's NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania.
"We certainly need more international participation," Livingston said.
The task force is dealing with the problem by using scaled-down training teams for the army, but can't stretch enough to do the same for the police. "The police effort is not moving as fast as we would like it to because of the shortage of trainers," Livingston said.
But he was quick to say that, although slowed, the police training effort is making gains.
"The effects we have achieved with the focus district development and training surge has been pretty astounding," he said. "But if we had the additional resources, we would achieve even greater results in a shorter amount of time. We would like to achieve them much faster."