Doubts cloud NATO handover in Afghanistan

KABUL, July 22, 2011 (AFP) - Grave doubts over the ability of Afghanistan's fledgling security forces to beat back the Taliban are weighing on a transition from NATO control taking place in seven parts of the country this week.

With foreign troops starting to leave ahead of a full combat drawdown by 2015, the spotlight is keenly focused on building up the national army and police forces, which officials say are rapidly improving in quality and number.

AFP - A US Blackhawk helicopter takes off after dropping troops at the forward base of the US Combined Task Force Dealer 1-67 Armored Battalion under the command of the International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan (ISAF) in the Arghandab valley, located in southern Afghanistan, on July 21, 2011.

But experts say worrying problems persist, with high levels of attrition and illiteracy, cronyism and fears of infiltration by insurgents within the ranks.

The United States alone has spent $27.8 billion on their development since 2002 and Western officials in Kabul predict it could be up to a decade before Afghanistan can pay for its own defence.

But as foreign aid starts to recede, there are fears over how the Afghan forces will be funded.

A Pentagon war report in April said a shortage of 700 international trainers was also hampering efforts.

It said that about three-quarters of army units are judged "effective" when backed by advisers or assistance from coalition troops, but not one army or police unit is deemed able to operate independently.

The first major operation carried out by Afghan forces, last August led to a Taliban ambush in which several soldiers died in a remote area of eastern Laghman province.

Official figures number Afghan security forces at 300,000, moving towards a target strength of 370,000 by 2014.

But the report said for every 10 recruits, six soldiers quit.

In the rural town of Marjah in the volatile southern province of Helmand, army commander Major Hanifullah Shinwari in May admitted that 155 of his 650 soldiers had gone home or were on vacation.

"Maybe some of them don't come back," he said. "Two days ago four soldiers ran away. I think they're scared."

In nearby Sangin, the deadliest district for US marines fighting in the war-ravaged region, local commander Captain Ahmad last month said he had only 72 of the 140 men he should be leading.

In a bid to overcome absenteeism, NATO has raised the pay and initiated regular rotation on the front line.

At handover ceremonies being held across the country this week, the head of the national transition authority, Ashraf Ghani, struck a confident note, saying the forces had seen "enormous change".

"For the seven locations which have been selected... we're completely confident that the Afghan army will have the capability," he told reporters in the eastern town of Mehtar Lam on Tuesday.

"We started from nothing in 2002. Progress (within the Afghan army) between 2002 and 2011 is truly impressive," said a Western military official speaking on condition of anonymity.

But critics say overtures being made to the Taliban, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States seek a peaceful exit to 10 years of war, are damaging morale among troops who don't know whether to fight or make friends.

"Like when the government, especially Karzai, calls the Taliban 'brothers'. How can the army or police shoot them, when they think they are our brothers?" said deputy speaker of parliament, Ahmad Behzad, a vocal government critic.

Fears of Taliban infiltration have also risen in conjunction with a number of high-profile attacks carried out by men in police and army uniforms.

The increased threat has forced the American military to announce it will send 80 counter-intelligence agents to help better screen recruits.

Overall, the beginning of a drawdown coupled with the start of transition does not match the reality on the ground, said Gilles Dorronsoro, an Afghan expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"It's an artificial calendar which doesn't match anything on the ground. It's too early because the ANA are not ready and too late because the withdrawal has started."

And he warned that if Karzai does push through a political settlement with the Taliban, rival warlords, who control their own factions within the ANA, may simply find it unacceptable and withdraw support for the government.

"There's a risk of implosion in the Afghan army," he said. "If the strongmen in the north don't accept negotiations, they could leave the government and take their men with them."

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