KABUL, Afghanistan — Some say that, after Gen. David Petraeus, he is the second most important American in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the work he does is “our ticket out.”
He is Gen. William Caldwell, commander of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan, and the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan.
The buzzword around Kabul these days is “transition,” meaning the gradual transfer of security for this country away from NATO to the Afghan National Army and police.
Transition will be the theme of the NATO summit in Lisbon later this month.
Caldwell is of medium height, slim and taut. I met him and his staff at Camp Eggers, a heavily fortified and bunkered rabbit warren in the heart of Kabul, even more confusing to a visitor than Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Caldwell arrived a year ago this November, and as far as those trying to mold a new national army and police are concerned, year zero began when Caldwell’s command was formed. He is the first three-star to be in charge of training, an illustration of how the mission has been upgraded in importance.
In 2003, however, I was taken to see the training of Afghan soldiers here, and was told that a competent Afghan army would be up and running in five years. That was seven years ago. What went wrong?
The answer is twofold. One, the Afghans were under-funded and under-resourced. As the chairman of the joint chiefs, Adm. Michael Mullen has said: In Iraq, we did what we must. In Afghanistan, we did what we could.
Caldwell was shocked when he first visited an Afghan army firing range and found only one instructor for 300 recruits. Training consisted of teaching men how to load their rifles, not actually fire them. If an enlistee signed up all he had to do to graduate was show up on graduation day. In September 2009, the Afghan army lost more men to desertion than it recruited.
The second explanation was that we did not foresee the reemergence of the Taliban back in 2003. We underestimated the number of soldiers we would need. I put it to the general that this was shocking in itself, as it was clear in 2003 that the insurgency was gaining strength in the south. He could only shrug.
That being said, the results of Caldwell’s new regime are impressive. It seems that the command has now got the money it needs, and is introducing the necessary organizational skills. Desertions are down and a proper leave policy has been put into effect. Before, leave was withheld because the command knew that soldiers would never come back from leave.
Five years ago, in Baghdad, I spoke with those in charge of creating a new Iraqi army. They said that no matter how well they trained a man, it would come to naught if their leaders were corrupt, or if the government fell apart along sectarian lines. The same could be true in Afghanistan. If an efficient and effective Afghan government, a prerequisite for a successful insurgency, is found lacking, then even the best army training will not produce success.
The new Afghan army works very hard at creating an ethnic balance between Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and the rest of the old Northern Alliance together with the Pashtuns. But Caldwell admitted that very few Pashtuns in the new army come from the south — Taliban country — and the Pashtuns of the south used to make up the backbone of the officer corps.
“You cannot overestimate the importance of literacy,” said President Barack Obama’s special representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke, a big admirer of Caldwell. Before literacy training was only optional. Now it is mandatory, even if it is only a first grade level of literacy.
Another deficiency is well-trained, non-commissioned officers, the back-bone of any army. The training of good sergeants has become a priority.
Russian equipment, especially Russian helicopters, are used because they are less complicated and easier to repair than our own. Caldwell’s staff, however, told me that there was pressure from Congress to buy American arms and equipment. This is all very well for congressmen trying to promote jobs in their districts, but it is short-sighted and counter-productive to the war effort out here.
I asked if dividing the training between separate NATO countries wasn’t confusing? Wouldn’t one training style be better? Caldwell said that there were some areas in which Americans hadn’t the necessary knowledge. For example, Czechs and Hungarians still flew Russian designed helicopters, and are better at teaching Afghans to fly them then we are.
Also, Americans have no experience with a national police force, but Italy does and the Italians were very effective trainers, Caldwell said.
All the statistics may point to a new and better trained Afghan army than before, but in the end everything will depend on whether the army we are training, like President Hamid Karzai himself, is seen to be a true Afghan national force, or just another set of foreign puppets. Afghan history has not been kind to the latter, but that, alas, is beyond the control of Gen. Caldwell and his dedicated staff.