How quickly can the afghan army stand up, so American troops can stand down? It's a question that could determine the success or failure of President Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan. The U.S. training program faces some formidable challenges in meeting Obama's 18-month timeline. Among the many issues: the problem of the "professional recruit." So ingrained is corruption and double-dealing in Afghan society that the country's meager Army finds itself sometimes recruiting the same men over and over again--scamsters who make off with guns and equipment each time.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak recently described to a U.S. official how one man signed up for the Afghan Army five times. Deserting after a couple of months, he would sell his rifle for a good price, shave his beard, sign up again--and then regrow it. He was finally recognized on his sixth attempt, the official, who didn't want to be named discussing a private conversation, tells NEWSWEEK. "Everyone's heard of these professional recruits," says Chris Mason, who retired from the State Department in 2006 after working on Afghanistan for five years. "They sign up, get $120 a month and three hots [meals] and a cot. Then they desert, sell their equipment on Chicken Street in Kabul, and do it again." The stories, Mason says, illustrate how hard it is to answer even so basic a question as how big the Afghan Army really is.
Obama and his ground commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, hope to create an Afghan Army of 134,000 by October 2010 (the president set aside McChrystal's further goal of 240,000 as "too large and too far out," a senior administration official told reporters at a White House briefing). But is 134,000 even attainable? Mason and Thomas Johnson, an Afghanistan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School, think not. "Projections of a 134,000-man force by 2010 or a 240,000-man [Army] in the future are absurd," they wrote in a study in Military Review, the Army's professional journal, that's caused a stir.
But Lt. Gen. Richard Formica, who until this fall ran the program to train the Afghan Army, thinks McChrystal's goal is "going to be difficult but achievable." Retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who ran the program to train the new Iraqi Army and went to Afghanistan earlier this year, cautiously echoes Formica's optimism, though, he warns, "the training program was very well thought out, but now it will have to be changed." The biggest hurdles, Dubik and others say, are the shortage of bases and training schools; a lack of senior and noncommissioned officers; too little equipment; a near-total absence of support functions like logistics, communications, and medical services; and the Army's deep ethnic divisions. The bottom line, says a former U.S. general involved in many training missions who didn't want to be named casting doubt on the effort: "I can't think of anything like this that's been done in less than 10 years."