U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are reporting a sudden surge in Afghan army recruits this month, a much-needed boost after Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his security forces may not be able to take over from U.S. troops for up to five more years.
The uptick followed an autumn slump in Afghan army recruitment, and U.S. military officials attributed the sudden jump to promised pay hikes rather than President Barack Obama's announcement that U.S. troops will start leaving in 18 months.
"If we continue recruiting like we did, we'll make it," Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, head of the Afghan training mission, told reporters on Wednesday.
The Obama administration had earlier this year outlined a goal of setting up a viable security force of 400,000 by 2013, and Caldwell was measuring his progress against that figure. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, however, has backed off the goal of 400,000 in recent weeks.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal told Congress on Tuesday that regular measures of the size of the insurgency and the capability of the Afghan forces will be more useful than the hard target, but he estimated the total could be near 300,000 by July 2011, when U.S. forces begin drawing down.
The latest recruiting figures were a small bright spot in the otherwise slow and troublesome effort to blunt the Taliban while building a capable Afghan security force.
Afghanistan's ability to independently defend itself against attacks from Taliban and al-Qaida fighters is the linchpin in Obama's exit strategy, which envisions that U.S. troops would start to leave in July 2011 following the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. troops this year.
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters during a visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday that the Taliban is already using the withdrawal date of 2011 in its propaganda to locals to suggest the U.S. is weak and losing the war. But the date also has placed a valuable sense of urgency on the Afghanistan government, he said.
The American timetable for a sustainable, trained Afghan security force is considerably more optimistic than the one laid out this week by Karzai. Standing beside Gates on Tuesday, Karzai said it will take five years before his forces will lead security operations and another 15 to 20 years before Afghanistan could pay for such a large force.
On Wednesday, Rodriguez and Caldwell said the sudden uptick of Afghan recruits in December was not believed to be the result of Obama's announcement. Rather, he said increased pay for police officers and extra money for soldiers engaged in heavy combat has helped breathe new life into the training effort.
Caldwell said 2,659 Afghan recruits signed up in the first seven days of December, compared to 831 in all of September.
Pay is a big hurdle.
For example, the Afghanistan government recently increased to $240, from about $180, the monthly pay given to a freshly recruited soldier deployed to the troubled Helmand province.
Taliban pay is reported to be anywhere from $250 to $350 a month.
"The real criteria is feeding their family," Rodriguez said.
Gates this week arrived in Afghanistan in the first Cabinet-level trip since Obama's Dec. 1 announcement. Gates carried the message to Karzai directly that the U.S. commitment was not open-ended, but also that the U.S. would not abandon Afghanistan's struggle.