By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
March 9, 2010 - Getting more NATO military trainers into Afghanistan is a top priority, the commander of the alliance's military forces told a Senate panel today. "We need to focus like a laser on trainers from NATO forces," Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis said during a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Afghan leaders are doing well in recruiting soldiers and police, but retention is a concern, and the country's forces are stalled by a lack of trainers, Stavridis said. U.S. military leaders have requested 1,278 NATO trainers for Afghan forces, but only 541 were pledged at a recent meeting, he said.
"It absolutely is correct to say NATO has fallen short on providing these vital trainers," Stavridis said, adding that U.S. leaders are contacting representatives of the 28 member nations individually to discuss how each can contribute to training. "We will continue to hammer away at this until we fulfill that commitment," he said, "and I will continue to keep it at the top of my priority list."
Stavridis, who also commands U.S. European Command, said he is "cautiously optimistic" about Afghanistan and agrees with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' assessment from Afghanistan yesterday that "we have bits and pieces of good news." The quantity of Afghan troops has "improved dramatically," the admiral said, and the quality is improving.
The ratio of Afghan troops to coalition forces in operations in Marja, a major offensive in Helmand province that began Feb. 13 and recently entered the "hold and build" phase, was 2-to-1, Stavridis said. He also said he is satisfied overall with how the Afghans are performing in combat, showing more initiative and standing "shoulder-to-shoulder" with international troops.
The United States has deployed about 6,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and is on track to have 30,000 there by August. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is trying to grow its army to 300,000 and its police force to 100,000. NATO pledged 9,500 servicemembers to Afghanistan, but Dutch government officials said they will withdraw their 2,000 troops in the spring, Stavridis confirmed. He is requesting 700 more NATO trainers.
Asked by senators about the cost of training the Afghan troops, the admiral said it probably would be in the "low billions."
"I think it's fair to say it's an international effort," he said, "and we would hope that all in the international community will continue to support it."
In the recent clearing operation in the southern city of Marja, non-U.S. NATO troops filled 25 to 30 percent of combat roles, Stavridis said, noting that 20 of the 42 nations with servicemembers in Afghanistan limit how their troops can be used. "Some of these are very restrictive, and we try to reduce those where we can," he said.
Stavridis said "a whole-of-society approach" – with contributions from the military, other government agencies, the private sector and the international community – is necessary in Afghanistan.
"It has to be connected in a way we have not been terrifically effective at," he acknowledged. To improve nonmilitary cooperation in Afghanistan, stakeholders will have to improve coordination, beginning in the planning stages, with long-term documents similar to the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review, the admiral said.
"It's the planning we ought to go after," he said. "The other agencies are off doing their plans, and we're doing our plans, then we meet in Afghanistan and our plans aren't necessarily aligned."
Stavridis called security in Afghanistan "the most important security issue for the United States moving forward in the 21st century."