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Afghan troops' training hampered by shortage of instructors

The U.S. military is unable to provide enough trainers to mentor Afghan troops for combat duty -- an American manpower gap that threatens a key element of the Obama administration exit strategy.

September 13, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

PUL-E-CHARKHI, AFGHANISTAN — The Afghan soldiers on the training ground quickly took up the proper defensive positions when the fake roadside bomb blew up -- but then, despite the insistent cajoling of a group of British and U.S. trainers, they just lay there in the dirt peering over their guns.

"These guys won't listen," said British army Capt. Clive Magill, an instructor at the Consolidated Fielding Center here.

It was a poor showing, but the Afghan soldiers weren't the only ones to blame. Because of U.S. troop rotations and shortages of instructors, their training team had been changed three times, forcing the entire battalion to be held back for an extra six weeks of work.

The problems with the unit that day highlight a broader issue across Afghanistan: Critical manpower shortages in Afghan combat units and of international combat trainers are hampering efforts to turn this country's security forces into an effective army, military officials say.

Increasing the size of Afghan forces is a central part of the stepped-up U.S. war effort and a key element of the Obama administration's exit strategy.

Despite years of training, however, Afghan forces' abilities lag behind those of their Iraqi counterparts, military officials say, in part because the U.S. training effort in Afghanistan has long suffered from a lack of resources.

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new top commander in Afghanistan, has not said publicly how large he wants the Afghan force to be but has said it needs to expand beyond its current goal. Other military officials are recommending that the force nearly double from the current goal of about 225,000 to about 400,000.

The U.S. is about to double the number of trainers it has in the field, from one brigade to two. But top officers plan to use the additional force to expand police training, so the extra instructors will not solve the shortfall in military trainers.

The fielding center, for example, has been allotted 40 military personnel and trainers, but only 22 of the slots are filled.

"This is the unloved part of" the training effort, said British army Col. Ian Smailes, deputy commander of the Combined Training Advisory Group. "There is a scarcity of resources."

And then there's the issue of shortages on the Afghan side. The initial Afghan unit training lasts about 10 weeks at the fielding center, east of Kabul, and trainers struggle to keep the Afghan units above 80% strength.

Many Afghan soldiers go AWOL because of problems getting their pay to their families in remote areas. But more problematic, many new soldiers desert when they learn they are going to be assigned to the south, where the fighting is most intense.

"As soon as they find out we are sending them to the south, we start losing them," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel J. Walczyk, the center's executive officer.

To stop the desertions, one American soldier said, trainers have begun lying to the Afghans, telling them at the beginning of training that they will be headed to more peaceful areas and withholding their real assignment.

U.S. commanders hope they can enhance the security forces' initial training by using international troops to train units in the field.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Eleazar Omar Sanchez III, who oversees the training of field units in part of eastern Afghanistan, said he has about 16 U.S. trainers for every 500-man Afghan battalion. With battalions dividing up and deploying at multiple small combat outposts, there are not enough trainers to go around, Sanchez said.

"Sixteen definitely doesn't cut it if we want to hold several combat outposts," Sanchez said.

Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams provided by European nations are much larger, with up to 50 people. U.S. officials say the European teams also tend to have more soldiers who have worked together. Many of the U.S. teams have been thrown together either right before they went to Afghanistan or once they arrived, decreasing their effectiveness, military officers say.

Army Maj. Gen. Richard P. Formica, head of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, said the military was working to overcome the problems. "We are managing shortfalls," he said.

McChrystal and other top military officials have concluded that one way to ease the shortfall of mentors is to partner international combat units and Afghan security forces.

The units would be paired with Afghan units of similar size. The idea is that by working side by side with troops, the Afghans would continue their combat education, making up for the shortage of mentors.

In an interview in Washington, Michele A. Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, said that though there were examples of places where partnering was working, it was uneven and that there were "plenty of gaps to be filled in."

"A much more systematic and enhanced approach is needed," she said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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