By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
July 9, 2010 - The push to build Afghanistan's security forces to 305,000 members is ahead of schedule, but there are still some obstacles to overcome, a senior officer involved in the effort said yesterday.
Army Col. John Ferrari, deputy commander for programs for NATO Training Mission Afghanistan and Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, discussed the effort's progress and challenges in a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable.
Ferrari is responsible for dedicating resources to the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army to fight the counterinsurgency and to aid in building the Afghan economy.
The training commands work with regional coalition commands and Afghan security forces leaders to determine training, life-support and work construction projects, Ferrari explained.
Contracted construction companies -- with Afghans making up the majority of their employees -- build the facilities. The security transition command procures the equipment the Afghan forces use, ranging from boots and uniforms to weapons and vehicles, as well as resources needed to sustain the force in the field, such as fuel, spare parts, and even firewood. The budget also covers all training costs for Afghan security forces.
Ferrari said that when Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV arrived in Afghanistan to take charge of the training effort, he found that NATO forces were purchasing boots that were being imported and sold from one person to another. In this process, Ferrari said, the cost was marked up before the boots were sold to the government for military use. Thanks to changes made by Caldwell and NATO forces, the colonel said, the boot importing has ceased, and all boots for Afghan forces are made in Afghanistan by Afghans.
This, he explained, not only provides an economic plus for Afghanistan, but also helps to solidify Afghan society against oppressive invading groups such as the Taliban. For example, he said, before the Soviets took over Afghanistan in December 1979, women were allowed to own businesses, and were key contributors to a strong manufacturing industry. Under the Soviets and the Taliban rule that followed, he said, that industry was dismantled.
"We now have women-owned businesses we've given contracts to that will manufacture other things that soldiers wear," Ferrari said. "Life under the Taliban was pretty awful if you were a woman. By having women enter society and become business owners, they now have a stake in the government and making sure the Taliban doesn't come back."
Afghanistan's army and national police force now number 235,000 total members. Ferrari said this number, combined with increased recruitment and decreased attrition, puts the training effort "several months" ahead of schedule to reach its goal of 305,000 soldiers and policemen by October 2011.
Ferrari attributed the growth rate to increased pay and better training for soldiers and police.
The biggest hurdle in reaching the goal is literacy, Ferrari said. Neither the Soviets nor the Taliban provided schooling for the generations of Afghans growing up since the 1970s. As a result, the people Ferrari is looking to bring into the security forces – the young adults 18 to 30 years old – most likely don't have any formal education.
"Remember, Afghanistan is a country that has been at war for 30 years," Ferrari said. "Education was not prized; as a matter of fact, the Taliban shut down the schools. ... If you're a police officer -- they can't even write down a license plate, because they don't know what numbers are."
A new literacy program for Afghans entering basic training has helped to mitigate the problem, Ferrari said, but it's still rudimentary and hasn't yet been applied to every training center. The hope, he said, is to get trainees to the equivalent of a third-grade literacy level.
The challenge continues, though. Ferrari noted that any programs required to sustain a national force will require trainees to have the ability to master more complex subjects, in addition to possessing basic reading and writing skills.
"That will continue to be a challenge, especially as we build enablers, like logistics, communications and engineers," he said. "It's hard to teach somebody logistics and to do inventory control if they don't know how to read."