Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon specializes in national security and defense policy and is senior author of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan Index projects. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.
By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN
This Saturday in Afghanistan, in an event that may not grab huge headlines, the transfer of NATO’s training command will occur, as another American Army officer, Lt. Gen. Bolger, takes over from Lt. Gen. William Caldwell. The McChrystals and Petraeuses of the world generally get most of the press in these sorts of operations, but Caldwell’s contribution has been no less central.
During a two-year tenure in the position, Caldwell dramatically amped up virtually every aspect of the training of Afghan soldiers and policemen. Previously, through no fault of his predecessors but due to a fundamental lack of resources, many soldiers got just a few weeks of training and many policemen got none at all. Recruits left training just as illiterate as when they arrived, typically, and went off to jobs with miserable pay - if the pay got to them at all, as it was often skimmed by Afghan commanders or otherwise misdirected. Equipment was shoddy and barracks were no better. And we wondered why the Afghan security forces were often incompetent, corrupt or both.
Fast forward two years. Not just because of Caldwell, but also because of Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who ran the main operational arm of the Afghanistan mission known as the ISAF Joint Command and ensured that Afghan units went through a form of apprenticeship by NATO forces in the field even after completing training, things are remarkably better. Afghan forces are providing fully half of all units in major operations in the country’s troubled south and east. They are fighting so hard that they are taking casualties at several times’ NATO’s rate. They are responsible for the security of Kabul and a few other key areas mostly on their own - and while spectacular attacks do tragically still occur in Kabul, the city on balance is safer than the south of the nation and far safer than Baghdad was during that country’s war. Afghan forces now number 310,000, well on their way to the target of 350,000.
Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police are getting literacy training at a time, improving their proficiency on the job as well as enhancing the pride and prestige associated with the job. After basic training, Afghan soldiers get additional specialized unit training before going off to the field. They now make a livable wage and can often gain access to their salaries through electronic banking systems that Caldwell and company have established. While ethnic imbalances do exist in parts of the force, on balance the country’s recruiting mirrors very well the demographic makeup of the country.
NATO’s training command numbers about 5,000 personnel. Its main base at Camp Eggers in Kabul coordinates activities with the Afghan government and has almost 1,000 of those personnel; the other 4,000 plus are spread at 200 places across the country, including training facilities in 30 of the nation’s 34 provinces, and numerous Afghan government ministries where they mentor their Afghan colleagues.
Caldwell has enjoyed a budget of more than $10 billion a year in recent years to build this force, financed primarily by the United States. But cognizant of long-term cost issues, he has whittled down the sustaining costs of the Afghan force to no more than $4 billion annually (by 2015 or so) through various efficiencies and economies. The international community will be able to afford that bill - far less than the $100 billion a year we’ve been spending to fight much of the war with American troops of late.
The essence of our exit strategy for Afghanistan is to contain the insurgency over the next three years while preparing Afghan forces to continue the fight mostly on their own thereafter. Our original hopes to largely defeat the insurgency on our watch will likely not be realized, but as Paul Wolfowitz and I recently wrote at foreignpolicy.com, we can still realistically aim for the “Colombia standard” of relative success in which Afghan forces can contain and gradually whittle away at the remaining extremists even after 2014 when most NATO forces will have gone home. This is a realistic goal and a viable strategy - and General Caldwell with his multinational team and their Afghan counterparts get a huge share of the credit for putting this goal within reach.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.