KABUL, Afghanistan - President Obama has his troop surge. Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces have theirs.
Though the latest U.S. war strategy was presented with worldwide fanfare, Afghanistan's defense force has been quietly planning its own troop buildup to break the Taliban's tightening grip on swaths of the nation. The Afghan surge is the one to watch because the success of Obama's plan is inextricably hinged to Afghanistan's ability to recruit, train, and retain security forces that can eventually take the lead in defending the nation.
Afghanistan's defense minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, said in an interview yesterday that he already had assigned one brigade to a new three-brigade seventh corps of the Afghan national army. Corps 215 Maiwand is based in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah, where most of the 30,000 U.S. reinforcements will be sent.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the Afghans had promised to send 5,000 members of the new corps to work with British troops in Helmand. Wardak insists that number will be achieved with ease. He said he had already begun staffing the command's second brigade.
Moreover, he said nearly 44 additional companies of Afghan soldiers were being added to battalions in the south and east. Another Afghan commando battalion, which will graduate in January, is also headed to Helmand, the scene of a major weekend offensive by 1,000 U.S. Marines and 150 Afghan soldiers.
"We are bringing the strength level of every unit in the south to 117 percent of its authorized strength, so there will be a significant increase in the number of troops," Wardak said.
Building up the Afghan army, plagued by inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of trainers, is a precursor to a U.S. troop pullout. Though Obama set July 2011 as the date for the beginning of a withdrawal, he said it would happen "taking into account conditions on the ground."
That was what Afghan leaders needed to hear.
"It is in the speech," Wardak said. "I don't believe the international community will just leave us like they did once before, after all these sacrifices. This enemy is not only terrorizing Afghanistan, it is terrorizing the whole international community. The nature of the threat is such that no one country will be able to deal with it."
Initially, the size of the Afghan army was scheduled to swell from 85,000 to 134,000 by 2013. That target now is expected to be reached earlier, by Oct. 31, 2011.
However, even the defense minister acknowledges that 134,000 will not be enough. He agrees with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who has recommended a 240,000-member Afghan army.
Candace Rondeaux, senior Afghan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the army faced a shortage of military trainers and was fighting endemic corruption. The question is how many troops the Afghan government can sustain in an aid-dependent country where the annual budget is under $10 billion.