By Navy Seaman William Selby
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 12, 2008 - A key leader in the effort to build Afghanistan's national army and police force explained the process and marked progress in a conference call with online journalists and "bloggers" May 9. Army Col. Michael J. McMahon, director of force integration and training for Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, said coalition trainers have been building infantry battalions from the ground up since 2002.
"It was taking about 12 weeks to produce one battalion," McMahon said. "Almost immediately, they had a very, very good impact on the public's confidence and the public's perception of what was in store for their government."
Since then, 52 battalions have been fielded, and the continuing effort is on track toward the goal of 78 battalions in an 80,000-person army, McMahon said. The battalions are organized into five army corps, an air corps, a commando brigade, and sustainment commands, he explained.
McMahon said the Afghans have no problem recruiting new soldiers due to their willingness and keenness to fight.
"The Afghan army has never run from a fight. In fact, we have to hold them back occasionally from that," McMahon said. "It's very much in their culture, and we're capitalizing on that in the way we're building this army. It's essentially a matter of harnessing a very martial, spirited population into a modern army with modern equipment."
The Afghan army is being issued new equipment and being trained to drive armored Humvees, he added.
"When all that's done, they'll have tremendous capabilities," McMahon said. "[They'll] increase their capacity for being the lead in the fight here, ... and it gives them confidence in themselves when they get much better. And the people, the population, will have confidence in their abilities." It's in the best interest of the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan for the Afghan army to take the lead in the fight, he said.
The old-style Afghan army carried many different tribal values that didn't always mesh with the values of the country as a whole, the colonel explained.
"The Afghan leadership is extremely keen on ensuring this was a national army," he said. "They go to extraordinary measures to make sure that it's got the right balance of the various ethnic compositions." It is very important that people from certain regions see this army as a national army with no ethnic animosity, said he emphasized.
"The most important thing to success here is that it stay a professional army and it stay a national army," he said.
McMahon said the Afghan police are quite a bit further behind than the army, from the Ministry of Interior level all the way down to the district police.
"The police force that exists right now is a vestige of warlords," he acknowledged. The Afghan Interior Ministry uses centralized control, which "does not work with decentralized society," the colonel said.
"So we're working to reorganize and then fix the headquarters so they can be an effective management headquarters," McMahon said.
For the district level police, a program called "focused district development" takes police out of their districts for intense training. When the police return to their districts, a coalition team mentors them as they put the training into practice, the colonel explained.
A special police force called the Afghan National Civil Order Police receives more training than other police and is a key element in the focused district development program. "Because they're so good," McMahon said, "we're using them in conjunction with the focused district development program by putting them in the district while the police are pulled out."
The program is progressing well, McMahon said, but it's going to take time.
"There are 365 districts," he explained, "and we are on No. 23 now. But it's going to take a very deliberate program to fix the police here, by far the major problem."
While it is taking time to reform the Afghan national police and army, McMahon said, he is very optimistic due to the resiliency of the Afghan people.
"For me, personally, it's a pleasure working with them," he said. "And it makes us work harder to give the people a chance of having some successful future."
(Navy Seaman William Selby works for the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)