I’ve been off the blogging sphere for a while and consequently am playing catch up. Been training for a 25 bicycle race. Every Memorial Day weekend people come from all over the country to my small town in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and race through the mountains against the train that was used in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The entire race is 60 miles long. I was only going to do the first 25 miles but will now have to miss it due to being called out of town unexpectedly. Truth is I don’t know if I would have made it. No matter how hard I trained, 5 years olds were still passing me up on the bike path! I did want to pass on information I gathered participating in three recent Department of Defense sponsored Bloggers roundtables on Afghanistan. Speaking before the graduating class of the Naval Academy today Secretary of Defense Gates said, “In Afghanistan, the Taliban momentum has been halted and reversed. “ The roundtables I participated in give details and insights into the hard work the Afghans and Coalition forces are doing to make this happen and to prevent a reversal of the situation. Because of the amount of data and in order to do the information justice, I will cover this in three blogs over the next several days.
On April 19, 2011, I participated in a round table with Major General Gary Patton, Deputy Commander General NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A). The topic was Experience and Progress in Training the Afghan National Army. On April 21, 2011 I participated in one with Major General Stuart Beare, Deputy Commander-Police NTM-A. The topic was Growth and Professionalization of the Afghan National Police Force. On May 3, 2011 I participated in a roundtable with Major General Richard Mills, former Commander, Regional Command Southwest. The topic was The Evolving Security Situation in Afghanistan. All three roundtables were very informative and as it has been with all of these events, no topic was off the table.
For this first blog I’ll cover Major General Patton’s roundtable. He began by saying he had just spent time with a Congressional delegation led by House Speaker Boehner and answered the question: “How is the Afghan Army doing?” He wanted to pass on his answer to us and said he had broken it down into two parts: “quantity and quality”. Looking first at quantity the General indicated they were making their goals. This year’s goal for the Army was 171,600. Currently the total is 159,363 indicating the Army was on track. It is expected that about 90% of the goals for the officer and NCO corps will be met by October 2012.
On the topic of retention, General Patton stated: “…the army continues to make its retention goals. The Afghans have set a goal of between 60% to 70% as success for a month’s worth of recontracting or retention. This past month, … — exceeded that goal, … at 77 percent and on the — for the year, their year, solar year, which ended in the end of March, I’m able to give you the solar year retention rate, which was 69 percent for the year. So it fell squarely within their 60 (percent) to 70 percent goal … for recontracting. Those of course are soldiers and NCOs who have chosen to re-enlist and remain in service. So they’re making their retention goals…Over the course of the year, the solar year, again, which runs from March to March, the army met its recruiting goals by 104 percent, a total of 75,000 Afghans recruited into the Army, and again, meeting recruiting goals for every month of the — of the solar year. So growth, retention and recruiting are on pace and on track and making good progress.”
In terms of quality, General Patton talked about the continued success of the literacy training program, stating teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic as part of basic training continues and is now paying off. The General elaborated stating: “Literacy is the process of educating soldiers that come in the army and prepare them, taking them from illiterate status to initially the first grade level and continuing education to a third grade level and then continuing education while they serve in the army to elevate them to whatever level they can reach.”
General Patton also said, “We are bringing Afghan NCOs and officers into a specialty program where we certify them as instructors and then take them through a series of levels of certification by which they attain essentially the distinction as premier trainers in the army. Today we have about 136 who have been through our premier trainer program equal — equivalent to what we would know as our drill sergeant program in the United States Army. And … — infusing them back into the training base, and they are training Afghans to train themselves. They have Afghans taking the lead more and more in both the individual training base, the leader training base, the collective unit training base across all of Afghanistan — today 23,000 soldiers in training, and that’s part of the overall growth program.”
When asked about whether reported incidents of Afghan soldiers turning and attacking fellow Afghans and coalition members and whether they were actually soldiers or impersonators, General Patton made several interesting points.
“I think what you see is really a combination. And the Afghans investigate into these situations very seriously. And I have sat down with the chief of the general staff of the army and the minister of defense — minister of defense of his ministry. And we’ve had very serious discussions and conversations about this problem. They take it very seriously. And they look at each incident on its own merits, and you see a combination of the situations you described, both impersonators, people who find a uniform, an army
or police uniform, and then launch their attack. And these are insurgents bent on, you know, violence, but impersonating — using the impersonation as a means of entry and so forth. And then you have the other cases of …– soldiers or policemen for whatever reason may be choosing to turn on their fellow comrades there.”
General Patton indicated to combat this the Ministry of Defense had issued a directive to soldiers emphasizing that “every soldier is a sensor” and must remain vigilant and “be able to sense surroundings…surrounding people, are able to detect those that might have an inkling or a motivation to turn on their fellow soldier.” The General also talked about the complex vetting program they have such as the requirement for “every soldier coming in the army has to have two guarantor letters from village elders, educators, mullahs and that sort of thing from their home village.” The vetting process also includes other things like identify and medical screening and drug testing. He admits the system is not foolproof but the Afghans are working to improve it.
I asked the General, in his opinion, what was the biggest misperception the American public has about the training effort over there? He replied:
“The misperception maybe is that the coalition is performing all of the training That was the case about a year ago. But since then, by virtue of the program the Afghans are training themselves…the Afghans are squarely in the lead in leading basic training; same for NCO training and same for officer training. The branch schools, where we do special training, you see a mix of coalition still in the lead in some cases, especially in some of the specialty `courses like engineering, explosive ordnance and so forth.”
Think I’ll end here. Still have some packing to do. Will be traveling over the weekend and will continue the Afghanistan update next week.