Afghanistan transition is on track, senior general says

Despite stubbornly high levels of attrition, illiteracy and criminality among Afghan security forces, a top American general involved in training them said NATO has made substantial progress in crafting an Afghan national army and police organization capable of providing much needed security.

"We think this is an achievable mission," said Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller, who is leading NATO's effort to develop the national institutions that will manage procurement, contracting, budgeting, infrastructure building and training for the 352,000-strong Afghan National Security Force, which includes the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.

"We've invested a lot of blood and U.S. treasure," he said. "Don't abandon it before we get to the end state."

Fuller, deputy commanding general for programs for NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, spoke Thursday in Washington at an event sponsored by Government Executive Media Group.

"How you build an army is a business," he said. "What we're trying to do is make it as efficient and effective as possible."

With about 86 percent of the Afghan population unable to read and write, raising literacy levels is essential, he said. As such, the Defense Department has invested $30 million to train Afghan recruits to read as high as the third-grade level -- hiring more teachers than Afghanistan's Ministry of Education.

"We can't have a professional military without the basics of literacy," he said.

Although educational training draws many Afghans to the security forces, too many of the recruits don't stay. High attrition rates in both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police cost $250 million a year in wasted funds, Fuller said. He attributed the high dropout rates to poor leadership, a lack of accountability and rigid organizational rules that fail to respect the personal needs of soldiers and police serving in combat for extended periods. NATO officials are working with Afghan leaders to develop a rotation cycle that will allow for authorized time off the job, something that should address the needs of many who go AWOL, he added.

"If you don't treat them well, they immediately vacate," Fuller said. "You're not supposed to be servants when you're serving."

The highly trained Afghan National Civil Order Police last year had a 148 percent attrition rate, which Fuller said has since dropped to 10 percent, largely through improved leadership.

The semiannual progress report on Afghanistan released by the Pentagon in late October noted that despite some successes, attrition continues to present enormous challenges for the security forces, along with poor leadership among Afghan commanders and the "influence of criminal patronage networks."

The illiteracy rate affects corruption, Fuller says, as it's easier for a dishonest official to take funds from service members' paychecks when they can't read the numbers on the check.

NATO has developed a computerized pay system that sends pay authorization certificates to the cellphones of soldiers and police that they can present to pre-approved money handlers who transfer the funds from a centrally managed account in Kabul for a small fee. The system, which is now in effect for all but a few thousand troops, has significantly cut corruption, he said.

It is an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem, Fuller said, noting that the pay system is tailored to the peculiarities of Afghanistan's limited banking system and the cultural habits of users.

Fuller also responded to a New York Times report that questioned the success of a program that is building a state-run Afghan private security force to replace the private contractors now protecting foreign aid projects across the country. Both the Defense and State departments are working to meet the March 2012 deadline for standing up the new forces.

Although he acknowledged challenges to completing the program in the next five months, Fuller said he's not worried.

"We know how to train people, now all we have to do is another element of training," he said. "It's just an extension of our current mission."

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