Can the Afghans Defend Themselves?

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The death last weekend of the 44th British soldier killed in Afghanistan has amplified questions over the role of NATO in that country, five years after the fall of the Taliban. While U.S. and Alliance forces have no intention of leaving Afghanistan anytime soon, voters in the NATO countries are demanding a concrete exit plan. And, as in Iraq, the Afghanistan exit plan centers on the development of a national army capable of holding off the Taliban without outside help.

Afghans, too, are chafing under the continued presence of foreign troops. "We appreciate the foreign soldiers being here, fighting for us. But for how long will their mothers allow them to do this? For how long will they stay?" asks Parliamentarian Mirwais Yasini, from Nangahar province. "We have to build our country ourselves. Nobody will build a house for someone else. A friend may lend bricks and mortar, but you will have to build your house yourself."

Allowing Afghans to build that house themselves is the goal of an ambitious plan unveiled at the Pentagon late last year by General Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. It calls for the establishment of a fully functioning army three years ahead of the schedule originally envisaged. "The formula for success in Afghanistan is to enable the Afghan national security forces to defend the Afghan people," Wardak told the press conference. But armies take years to build, and Wardak is looking to double the current troop numbers to 70,000 by October 2008.

Some 35,000 troops have already been trained by Western forces since 2003, and many already accompany NATO troops on the ground. But the attrition rate hovers at around 15%, and as the first trained battalions near the end of their three-year commitment, there is a fear that few will re-enlist. Though soldiers recently received a raise in their minuscule salaries — from $70 to $100 a month — many complain that it still isn't enough to support a family. Others, concerned about the worsening security situation, are reluctant to join the army knowing that there is no one left to protect their homes.

The soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) have the most dangerous job in Afghanistan. The dark khaki camouflage uniform — a gift from the U.S. government — may as well be a beacon for Taliban attacks. Insurgents often target the ANA, knowing that the poorly prepared troops rarely drive armored vehicles and lack sufficient firepower to mount a counter-offensive. Several hundred ANA troops have died in combat since 2003, and a new Taliban directive has decreed that their alliance with foreign forces makes ANA soldiers infidels, and thus a legitimate target.

Regular news reports of the rising military death toll has made recruiting new soldiers even more difficult, laments Colonel Karimullah, head of army recruiting in Kabul. "The boys themselves are not afraid," he says. "But it is their parents who make the decisions to let them join, and when they see all this on TV, they don't think it's worth it." Although legitimate jobs are still hard to come by in Afghanistan, where unemployment hovers around 70%, poppy growing and smuggling in many provinces is a much more lucrative undertaking.

While the new Afghan recruits are often fearless fighters — nearly three decades of continuous war has instilled a stoic acceptance of pain and privation that would hobble most modern militaries — few are prepared for the discipline required for service in a regular army. One U.S. drill sergeant wryly recognizes that time is an elastic concept for most of his trainees, and a tribal leader from Helmand estimates that any given day finds as many as half of the ANA soldiers in his province stoned on hashish.

But at the Kabul Military Training Center, where all recruits undergo basic training, the U.S. advisers are enthusiastic about their charges' progress. "These guys are the future of Afghanistan," says Sgt. 1st Class David Asay, as he watches a new batch of recruits struggle to tie the laces on their brand-new army boots. "They may be sheepherders now, but in 16 weeks they will be soldiers." Staff Sgt. George Beck, Jr., says the development of a full professional army may take a little longer. "It's all about crawl, walk, run. Right now the Afghan army is at a crawl. In a few more years it will walk, and in 10 it will run. Then we can all go home."

Sure, it's an exit strategy, but the question is whether voters in NATO countries are willing to wait that long.