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The Afghan army needs more than foot soldiers

Canada has a new Afghanistan mission: to train the country's troops so they can take over in 2014. NATO has had a year of success in pumping out more foot soldiers, but Canadians will pour in for the harder step of training whole new units to fly helicopters, fire artillery and supply an army.

NATO leaders met last week to endorse a new strategy of handing over the "lead role" in security to Afghan forces in 2014, but they tripped all over themselves in providing fuzzy indications of whether that actually means a deadline that will see coalition troops leave.

Until the new training mission was approved, Canada had an Afghanistan exit strategy: walking out of Kandahar. Now, under pressure from allies, it has a new strategy of training Afghan troops so that the allies can find the exits, too.

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Up to 950 Canadian troops will go to Afghanistan as trainers. The good news is that training large numbers of new Afghan soldiers and police has been one of the mission's real successes of the past year. The police have a reputation for abuses, but the Afghan National Army may be the closest thing the country has to a respected national institution.

But if Afghan forces are to take the "lead" in 2014, they'll need to operate the artillery and helicopters they don't yet have, so they can do the things allied forces now do for them. The trickier question of transforming the army and police into professional, national institutions in a country with weak government will matter in 2014, too.

There's a myth that the United States and NATO have worked like mad to build up the Afghan army and police since the war started in 2001, but the targets were never reached. In fact, the targets for increasing Afghan force were dramatically increased a year ago, when the former U.S. commander, General Stanley McChrystal, set a new strategy that included a surge in allied troops.

"The perception that we've been training the Afghan army and police for a long time is true. But at what level? What numbers?" Major-General Stuart Beare, the Canadian deputy commander of NATO's Afghanistan training mission, said from Kabul.

In the past year, NATO's reorganized training mission, with 2,000 trainers, has pumped out new soldiers and police at a rapid clip, increasing the army from 97,000 to 138,000, and the police from 95,000 to 117,000. Desertion is still a problem, but it's down dramatically. The goal is to increase the army and police by another 60,000 a year from now.

Afghan forces now have a lot more foot soldiers, but not much else. They don't really have the units that make an army self-sufficient: logistics units to transport supplies, artillery units to fire big guns or helicopters for air support.

Getting soldiers into the field was the first priority, because for years NATO made a mistake in capping the Afghan forces at too low a level, said retired U.S. Lieutenant-General James Dubik, who was in charge of training Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008. "The NATO cap was so low, there was no way that force was ever going to be able to secure the country," he said.

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Now the training mission must not just increase the numbers of foot soldiers, and thousands of their sergeant-level leaders, but train whole new sections of the army. Logistics units that ship equipment and supplies are key, and face the dangers of improvised explosives, but the Afghan National Army mostly depends on allies for supplies. They lack engineers, signals units to provide communications, artillery units when foot soldiers need firepower, helicopter units for air support, and transport-plane pilots. That kind of specialized training is starting now.

"Tactical" training can probably be accomplished by 2014, Gen. Dubik said, but the NATO training mission's other, more complex task of improving the institutional systems of the army and police and the ministries that oversee them, to prevent corruption, ensure merit promotions and proper pay, and so on, won't be completely finished then.

At the moment, that seems less important than training Afghan forces to fight in place of allied troops. But they have to be armed with helicopters, artillery, and armoured vehicles they lack.

Afghanistan has a weak government, and the army is, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, still factionalized, with sections loyal to different leaders. If it doesn't become a more professional national institution by 2014, then leaving a bigger, better-armed Afghan force might not be a quick exit strategy.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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