Can Afghan National Army survive Nato exit?
In public, Nato commanders are quick to praise the progress made by the Afghan National Army (ANA), whose numbers and training have undoubtedly increased and improved in recent years.
This is thanks mainly to a renewed focus on the urgent need to produce Afghan security forces to take over and allow Nato's own combat troops to leave.
The UK has made clear its combat forces will be out by the end of 2014, albeit with a commitment to further training the ANA.
That there has been progress in that training is not in doubt, not least when compared with the kind of kit and training received by the gloriously named 1 Bang (1st Battalion the Afghan National Guard) back in the early days of 2002.
British and US commanders in Afghanistan are keen to describe most recent operations as "Afghan-led", while doing their best to play down the problems that remain.
However, in private, few working on the training mission underestimate the challenges of trying to produce a professional Afghan army that will survive Nato's departure, and be able to operate on its own, from planning and launching operations to providing logistical support.Recruitment targets
On the ground, it is clear that the soldiers and the officers of the ANA are a mixed bunch.
Out on patrol with British forces working alongside ANA units, there are indeed some committed, brave, decently trained and well-motivated young soldiers amongst the ANA, as well as some fearsome and hardened generals who have spent a lifetime fighting.
And the soldiers themselves are welcomed more warmly by Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar than their counterparts in the Afghan police, who are often still feared or hated as corrupt and lawless.
Recent progress has included recruiting some southern Pashtuns into the army. Last year, there were very few.
But despite efforts to ensure quality as well as quantity in the recruits, many working closely with the ANA admit that there are still some Afghan soldiers who are not up to the mark - young men who have signed up to eke out a basic living for themselves and their families, only to find themselves terrified or clueless in the midst of the fighting in southern Afghanistan.
End Quote Lt Gen William Caldwell US commander
We can build a soldier, train, develop and equip a soldier fairly rapidly - but to produce a leader takes longer”
Better mentoring and closer partnering between Nato and Afghan forces have had some impact over the past year, while better pay and training and a sharper Western focus on the problems within the ANA have also paid dividends.
But it is not yet clear whether that is enough for the central plank of Nato's exit strategy to work: producing Afghan national security forces able to shoulder the main burden of dealing with the insurgency and sustaining themselves by the end of 2014 without the massive Western back-up they currently receive both in training and on operations.
The targets set for the Afghan security forces are extremely ambitious.
The Afghan army is expected to grow at more than 2,800 soldiers a month to meet its October 2011 target of 171,600. The police are expected to reach 134,000 by then. The overall figure is expected to keep on increasing before Afghan forces assume combat responsibility in 2014.
Over the past year or so, ANA recruitment has doubled, giving the army a force level - in theory - of 150,000. At the main Kabul military training centre, where some 1,400 Afghan troops graduate every fortnight, the ratio of trainers to recruits is now some 1:20 compared with 1:70 last year.'Absent without leave'
However, the US commander in charge of Nato's training mission in Afghanistan, Lt Gen William Caldwell, told a recent press conference in Kabul that although 110,000 men had been recruited in 2010, attrition rates meant that the total increase in manpower was just 70,000.
And he admitted that despite improvements, the attrition rate (which includes those who go absent without leave, some travelling to give pay to families, or those who desert permanently) remained higher in the Afghan army than in the police, and was not the only problem.
Both literacy and leadership within the ANA remain major issues.
"We can build a soldier, train, develop and equip a soldier fairly rapidly - but to produce a leader takes longer," Gen Caldwell said.
Thanks to low literacy rates, those who can read have in the past been quickly promoted to non-commissioned officer (NCO) status, even if their leadership abilities do not always merit that, while solid and experienced senior NCOs, the backbone of any army, are in short supply.
A lack of leadership may also be one of the root causes of low morale in the army and the reason so many soldiers still go absent without leave, along with alleged ethnic tensions within some units.
Of those going absent without leave 98% are from field units, especially in areas of the most intense fighting.
Nonetheless, there has been a recent reduction in the army's desertion rate, which has dropped thanks to improvements in leave and pay, as well as some redress in the ethnic imbalance of the army.
At the moment it is far from clear whether the Afghan army now being built up by Nato can survive as an effective force long after 2014”
Pay is now on a par with the Afghan police, starting with basic pay of about $165 (£102) per month, which rises to roughly $250 to $280 per month when longevity bonuses are taken into account, or extra pay for specialisation or serving in the most high-threat areas such as Helmand and Kandahar.
However, that pay is still below what a young recruit could earn by joining a private militia or security company. It is also below that offered by the insurgents, who pay $10 (about £6) a day - assuming a recruit worked every day.Basic skills
Other challenges include trying to offer higher-level training in crucial specialisations, such as for Afghan soldiers to become engineers.
First, they need to be taught basic literacy skills and how to count before they can learn such skills as using a tape measure or even keeping track of the serial number on their own weapon.
Likewise, when some soldiers began to be paid electronically so that their pay could not be creamed off by their commanders, many could not read their bank statement, even if sent as a mobile phone text, because they were illiterate - and so believed they were not being paid.
Building up an army
- Afghan army has current force level - in theory - of 150,000
- Recruitment doubled in 2010
- Expected to grow at 2,800 per month to reach target of 171,600 by October
- US has budgeted $12.8bn to support Afghan security forces in 2012
A basic literacy programme is now mandatory, to enable recruits to count, add up simple sums, write their names and read basic texts.
Nato officers insist that they are producing better-quality Afghan soldiers than ever before, but say that careful mentoring at every level of command must continue if army units are to reach their full potential.
Meanwhile, paying for the Afghan security forces is also likely to become an issue.
In the US, Congress has budgeted $12.8bn to support the Afghan national security forces for 2012, but Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said that level cannot be sustained for many years, meaning that much depends on a successful transition to the Afghans themselves.
And at the moment, the Afghan government raises few national taxes to pay for its security force, despite its own ambitious plan to expand the final number of security forces by a quarter.
Those on the front lines in Afghanistan working closely with the recruits of the ANA are all too aware that it is one thing to train and equip an army but another to lead and sustain it, which is the ultimate aim in a very short time-frame indeed.
Without effective logistics, close air support and better leadership, the Afghan army is likely to have an extremely tough time facing down the insurgency without the kind of Western support it currently enjoys.
At the moment it is far from clear whether the Afghan army now being built up by Nato can survive as an effective force long after 2014.