By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
April 18, 2008 - Afghanistan's growing army is starting to take the lead in battles against Taliban insurgents, but the country's constabulary still requires work, the U.S. commander in charge of training and equipping those forces said today. The pace of Afghan Army development has been "quite remarkable in terms of their ability to field a force," said Army Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone, chief of Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan.
In addition, Afghan soldiers have been taking the lead in most of the major operations against the enemy over the past three months, Cone told Pentagon reporters from his base in Kabul during a satellite news conference.
"This is critically important, because the Afghans learn by doing and when they're out in front it reinforces the classroom learning that they've had on staff planning and anticipating and synchronization," he explained.
Cone took command of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan on July 16, 2007. Based on Camp Eggers in Kabul, the command's mission is to train, equip and advise the Afghan Army and national police force.
The Afghan Army now has about 63,000 soldiers on duty and in training, Cone reported, with a projected force-growth to about 76,000 troops by the end of this year. The Afghan Army's end strength is expected to reach 80,000 soldiers in 2009, he said.
Today, the Afghan Army has fielded 12 of 14 authorized brigades and 33 infantry battalions, Cone said. Last month, the Afghans certified one of their infantry battalions as trained and ready to conduct independent operations.
"This is a positive milestone for this relatively young Army, and it says something about the leadership of this specific unit and the commitment of the Afghan National Army and of its leaders," he said.
The Afghan Army didn't have any commando battalions at this time last year. Today, however, the Afghans have trained and stood up four commando units that are the equivalent of the U.S. Army's elite Ranger light-infantry units. A fifth Afghan commando battalion is slated to come on line this summer, he said.
Cone praised the fighting spirit of Afghanistan's soldiers.
"I would tell you that the Afghan fighter is in my view a top-ranked individual; this is a martial people, they are very good at fighting at the individual level," he said. Afghan troop leaders, he noted, are being taught how to incorporate command-and-control, communications as well as military logistics systems.
Meanwhile, Afghan troops are very happy with ongoing deliveries of M-16 rifles and armored Humvee trucks to replace old or obsolete equipment, he observed.
"We are very optimistic, as we look at this summer that we will close all of their equipment shortages," Cone said, in time for anticipated increased confrontation with Taliban insurgents with the coming of warmer weather.
However, training Afghanistan's police remains a work in progress, Cone acknowledged, citing past resource priorities including the availability of trainers.
"The shortfall in trainers has specifically affected the police training program ... we can only cover down on about 30 percent of the police districts in Afghanistan," Cone explained. The shortage of trainers, he said, has prolonged the development and reform of the police.
"To date, we have been able to meet the requirements for the Afghan National Army. That was our first priority and that has been covered by a combination of U.S. and NATO trainers," Cone noted. "But, the police program is clearly where the shortfall is felt most."
The Focused District Development program that was launched in October targets deficiencies in police conduct and performance, he said.
"This strategy is aimed at reforming the way that policing is done at the district and community levels," he explained. Seven police districts have completed the program's eight weeks' of formal police training and those officers have returned to duty under the mentorship of U.S. trainers.
Cone's organization is working with the Afghan Ministry of Interior to train up the police. The goal, he said, is to reform 52 of the more than 300 Afghan police districts by the end of 2008. He estimated it will take about five years to complete the program.
"It is important to note that the police are the 'face' of government to the Afghan people and for so long that face has been associated with corruption and unprofessionalism," Cone observed.
"Focused District Development is the first real, major step in breaking this cycle of corruption and (to) provide Afghans a professional, well-led and well-trained police force," he said.