The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - OPINION - TRUDY RU­BIN

The bat­tle for Marja in south­ern Afghanistan is the first test of whether the Afghan na­tional army is ready for prime time. Yet re­port­ing from Marja in­di­cates that al­though Afghan army troops have shown courage, U.S. Marines have done all the heavy lift­ing. It seems un­likely the Afghan army can op­er­ate alone soon. But Pres­i­dent Obama has said U.S. troops will start a draw­down in 2011. So what does Marja tell us about how real that dead­line is? The key to a re­spon­si­ble U.S. de­par­ture, says John Nagl, a co-au­thor of Gen. David Pe­traeus’ coun­terin­sur­gency man­ual, is “the cre­ation of some kind of Afghan force that can se­cure the coun­try af­ter we leave.” He added, “We can re­duce the ef­fec­tive­ness of a lot of Afghan Tal­iban, but we can’t ul­ti­mately cre­ate a se­cure Afghanistan without train­ing Afghan se­cu­rity forces.” Yet it was not un­til late last year that the U.S. gov­ern­ment got se­ri­ous about train­ing Afghan troops, says Nagl, now head of the Cen­ter for a New Amer- ican Se­cu­rity. My two vis­its last year to the Kabul Mil­i­tary Train­ing Cen­ter, where U.S. and Afghan train­ers work with Afghan re­cruits, gave me a feel for the daunt­ing na­ture of the task. The Afghan army is on track to meet its goal of 134,000 troops by Oc­to­ber, but qual­ity — not quan­tity — is the is­sue. In Novem­ber, Afghan Sgt. Aman­ul­lah Kha­yar told me15 to 20 per­cent of his sol­diers were il­lit­er­ate. Be­sides an eight-week mil­i­tary course, they got lit­er­acy train­ing, along with a three-to 12-week driv­ing course meant to re­duce the num­ber of ca­su­al­ties caused by novice driv­ers. The troops have a high at­tri­tion rate, al­though a re­cent pay in­crease may help ad­dress that. Some of­fi­cers com­plained to me about pref­er­ences given to Ta­jiks over Pash­tuns, who are the largest Afghan eth­nic group and the one from which the Tal­iban come. De­fense Min­is­ter Ab­dul Rahim War­dak told me he’d made eth­nic bal­ance a pri­or­ity, with per­cent­age tar­gets for each bri­gade. And Kha­yar in­structed the troops in both Dari (the Ta­jiks’ lan­guage) and Pashto. The Afghan Uzbeks were on their own. U.S. of­fi­cers at the base spoke of an­other huge prob­lem: A woe­ful short­age of Afghan train­ers and a se­ri­ous short­age of U.S. men­tors to over­see them. Some­times there are only two men­tors to an Afghan bat­tal­ion of 1,200. The U.S. com­man­der, Gen. Stan­ley McChrys­tal, has urged the NATO al­lies to com­mit 2,000 new in­struc­tors, with lit­tle re­sult so far. The un­cer­tain­ties that dog the train­ing pro­gram lead many to con­clude that Afghan se­cu­rity must be sought else­where: With lo­cal militias, or with pro­grams to woo away Tal­iban fight­ers. In the short term, both fac­tors are key to shift­ing the bat­tle­field mo­men­tum. But when it comes to longterm sta­bil­ity, the train­ing of the Afghan army is still cru­cial. To un­der­stand why, it helps to look back at our train­ing of Iraqi army troops. That, too, was a long and dif­fi­cult process, with crit­i­cal mis­takes made, such as to­tally dis­man­tling the old Iraqi army. There was a short­age of train­ers, and U.S. of­fi­cials of­ten over­es­ti­mated the rate of progress. And there, too, tribal militias played a key role in push­ing in­sur­gents back. But once the heavy fight­ing was done, the Iraqi army be­gan to co­here, in­cor­po­rat­ing some ir­reg­u­lar fight­ers. De­spite con­tin­u­ing eth­nic ten­sions within, the Iraqi army has grown into an im­por­tant na­tional in­sti­tu­tion that has ac­cu­mu­lated pub­lic trust. Some­thing sim­i­lar could hap­pen in Afghanistan, with NATO troops and tribal forces turn­ing the tide, and Afghan units play­ing a big­ger role once the mo­men­tum shifts and U.S. troops start to leave. “This is go­ing to take longer and be harder than any­one is say­ing right now,” said Nagl, who thinks it will take five years for the Afghan army to jell, “but it is our exit strat­egy if we want to leave be­hind a sta­ble Afghanistan.” The time for NATO to cough up those 2,000 new train­ers is now. E-mail Trudy Ru­bin at tru­[email protected]

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