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Afghanistan gets visit by U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman

April 06, 2013|By Mark Magnier and Hashmat Baktash

KABUL, Afghanistan –Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday for a weekend visit aimed at assessing the amount and type of training that American troops will continue to provide Afghan defense forces after 2014, military officials said.

But his arrival was marred by new violence. Three foreign soldiers and two coalition civilian workers were killed hours after he landed when a bomb-laden vehicle exploded in southeastern Zabul province, NATO officials said, without identifying the nationalities of those killed.

On the same day in the same province, another car bomber attacked the convoy of Gov. Mohammad Ashraf Nasery on his way to visit a hospital, said provincial police chief Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Rooghlawanay. A doctor was killed and two bodyguards and a policeman were wounded in the attack.

The violence follows a general pattern by insurgents of attacking foreign troops to hasten their departure, analysts said, as well as attacking symbols of the Afghan state to discredit it.

Dempsey, who arrived at Bagram Airfield after an overnight flight, is scheduled to meet with U.S. allied commanders, Afghan officials and soldiers in the field, said John Manley, deputy spokesman with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force coalition, or ISAF.  Dempsey was last in Afghanistan in February for a change-of-command ceremony.

America’s top military commander told reporters his assessment will help shape U.S. decisions about how many American troops should remain after the U.S. and NATO combat role ends next year, according to the Associated Press.

There are currently 100,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to ISAF, 68,000 of them Americans. Dempsey told reporters Friday in Stuttgart, Germany, that he’ll likely decide during the summer the ideal size of U.S. forces beyond 2014 after seeing how much progress Afghan forces have made.

ISAF has put significant focus on training Afghan troops in preparation for drastically down-scaling its own role, but with mixed success. The sharp rise in attacks on foreign troops by gunmen in Afghan uniforms, whether by genuine Afghan soldiers or insurgents using uniforms as cover, has increased distrust between the allies.

Last year, reflecting its growing concern, the Defense Department issued two decrees on how to interact with Afghan soldiers. One states that all American soldiers serving in Afghanistan should be alert and carry a loaded magazine at all times along with their weapon. The other said that at least one American soldier should stand guard apart from the rest, with his or her weapon ready, whenever American soldiers are on duty in the presence of Afghan forces.

Other problems affecting the Afghan army include desertion, corruption, illiteracy and morale, analysts said. Recruiting has become easier in recent months, however, some said, as a reduction in foreign troops and humanitarian groups boosts unemployment and weakens the local economy.

“Many more people are joining the police or army because there are so few jobs,” said Hamid, 36, a struggling shopkeeper in a brown hat and traditional shalwar kameez outfit on the periphery of Bagram, who only uses one name. “Now even young people are joining, even though it’s dangerous work.”

Afghan troops and police lack much of the high-technology equipment their foreign counterparts have, including bomb-resistant vehicles, night-vision equipment and ground-piercing radar to counter roadside bombs, although they understand the terrain, social context and tribal links to which foreign troops are often oblivious.

As Washington and Kabul hash out how many foreign troops will remain and in what capacity, a lot will depend on how they are used, some said. “For training and advising the Afghan security forces, even 15,000 is a lot,” said Atiqullah Amarkhail, a Kabul-based military analyst. “But if they’re fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan troops, there should be at least 40,000 U.S. troops remaining here.”

Amarkhail said past training programs were inadequate, and Afghan troops haven’t had enough practice using high-technology equipment. Afghan commanders are making progress, he added, but intelligence-gathering remains weak, which means that most Afghan units still aren’t strong enough to win a firefight against insurgents without the support of foreign troops.

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