Afghan security forces race against 2014 deadline

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The U.S. unveiled a new timetable this week to wind down the war in Afghanistan by 2014 the proposed date by which Afghan security forces would take over from the U.S. and NATO.

U.S. and Afghan officials say it will be a difficult task, but that the goal is attainable.

The catch, of course, is that the Afghan army and police have to be ready to take the baton.

In southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, U.S. Marines are working with Afghan troops in an effort to train them to maintain the peace.

Learning To Be Good Policemen

On a recent day in the province's Garmsir district, Dost Muhammed, an Afghan policeman in a blue uniform and carrying an AK-47, walks through a thick crowd of merchants and shoppers.

"Garmsir is much better from last year, no Taliban in the area. No problems," he says in his native Pashto.

Muhammed talks like a seasoned veteran, but he's just 18 and has been on the force for only six months.

Walking a few yards behind him is Marine Capt. Matthew Taylor, who heads a police training team. Unlike Muhammed, Taylor stops to talk with shop owners and tells speeding motorcyclists to slow down.

Taylor says his problem here is not the Taliban insurgency, but instead making sure that cops like Muhammed learn how to be good policemen.

"My problems are, 'Hey, let's make sure we're standing at our posts the right way.' Stand up; turn off your cell phone. That kind of stuff," he says.

Taylor is working to double the number of police, build a training center and recruit from a population that is no more than 20 percent literate.

"Literacy is a problem, but it's a problem that we're also working to solve. We have daily literacy classes for police. Afghanistan as a whole is a fairly illiterate country. But that's not because they don't want to be literate. It's just, the last couple of years, they've had lack of opportunity," he says.

Security Forces' Performance 'A Mixed Bag'

Italian Brig. Gen. Carmelo Burgio just wrapped up a year in charge of training Afghan police, a force plagued by drug use and theft. At his office in Kabul, he acknowledged that building an able Afghan security force and having the Afghans take charge of that effort may take longer than politicians expect.

"To train a young guy to work as a patrolman, I need a couple of months three months, four months, six months. But if I need to change the mindset of the system, I need some years," he says, adding it could take five or 10 more years.

Burgio's goal for last month was to have 109,000 police recruits around the country. He has 120,000.

But numbers are just one part of the story. American and Afghan officials say the quality and performance of various units of the army and police are uneven as one officer put it, "a mixed bag."

In the effort to build the police force, Burgio says, part of that problem is that NATO's focus for years was almost exclusively on training the Afghan army.

"With the army, the military part of the coalition started to work effectively in 2002. With the police, we started working effectively in 2009, the end of 2009," he says.

The U.S. military has been at work training the Afghan army for years.

'Proud Of Their Heritage'

In Helmand province, Marine Lt. Tyler Johnston is the latest in a series of young American officers teaching Afghan soldiers.

A few miles from the Garmsir market, Johnston operates from a remote outpost with several other Marines advising a company of more than 100 Afghan soldiers.

These Afghan soldiers are relatively experienced, and they plan and lead most of the patrols around the villages, Johnston says.

"I'm not worried about them dropping their weapon and running away in a gunfight," he says. "They're very aggressive, tenacious, and guys who are proud of their heritage and proud of their culture. And they want to do the right things; they just need to be guided in that direction."

But the Afghan army has its share of problems, including attrition. One U.S. Army officer who asked that his name not be used says the Afghan unit he patrols with has lost about two-thirds of its soldiers; they simply quit.

Progress Suggests Target Is Reachable

Johnston says the greatest obstacle for Afghan forces is their inability to supply themselves in the field with necessities like water, food, ammunition and other items.

"Just like everyday things that they need, and it will be a list of two or three things every time we sit down. [They say,] 'We need a tarp to cover up our trucks, or we need batteries, or we need more bottled water.' They need to be able to call their supply line and be able to get the things they need pushed down to them, just the way Marine battalions operate," Johnston says.

He says he gives the Afghans bottled water to prevent them from drinking from a nearby canal and other items. But he says he has to draw the line somewhere. "I'm not Santa Claus."

Officials say it will be years before the Afghan forces can supply themselves, without substantial help from the Americans.

Still, Johnston's boss, Maj. Ian Campbell, says the Afghan army has come a long way just in the past year.

When asked if the goal of transferring security responsibilities by 2014 is achievable, Campbell says, "I think it is doable. It's going to take some help, certainly. But I think if they get a little breathing room, if they get a little time, I think that's certainly within reason."