The number of American military trainers in Afghanistan will increase by 800 by next March, a jump of nearly 25 percent in the U.S. commitment there, the top commander in charge of training said Monday.
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who heads NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters that even as the number of combat troops begins to drop, more trainers are needed. Afghan security forces are slated to take the lead in their country's security by the end of 2014, when international combat troops are scheduled to leave.
There have been ongoing concerns about the pace and effectiveness of the Afghan training, as commanders deal with persistent attrition problems, high illiteracy rates, low pay and difficult working conditions. But over the past week, U.S. defense officials have expressed optimism that the ragtag Afghan forces are improving, including a steady increase in their ability to read.
At the same time, there have been recurring problems with members of the Afghan Army or police turning against coalition forces.
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week that the problem is not always Taliban related. At times it can be triggered by stress or other working conditions. He said there has been an increasing effort to screen out potential threats, through an eight-step process that includes biometrics, references and other testing.
For the first time, he said, the Afghans did not meet their recruitment goal in June because they disqualified so many people who were trying to join the Army.
Caldwell said that he has been impressed with some of the reaction of the Afghan forces in recent attacks. While there continue to be problems, he said they are learning from each incident, and are using more formal command and control procedures for their responses.
He said the additional trainers will help the Afghans develop specialized skills in maintenance, logistics and medical systems _ things they now need the U.S. to do for them.
According to military officials, there are currently 3,300 U.S. trainers in Afghanistan, and another 1,800 international trainers.
Caldwell says just two Afghan battalions can operate independently now, but still rely on coalition forces for medical evacuation, logistics and intelligence support. He says another 124 Afghan battalions can operate with minimal support.
While the Afghans have improved, military leaders routinely acknowledge that they will require ongoing assistance after 2014 with the departure of coalition combat troops, including help with air support, medical evacuation, and intelligence gathering.
Caldwell said NATO and the U.S. expect that it would cost up to $6 billion annually to support and train the Afghan forces after 2014. The total is likely to be less than that, he said, because officials believe the insurgency threat will be reduced by then and they will continue to find ways to save money.