Afghan official says US numbers too low
KABUL - A top Afghan military official said yesterday that a key part of President Obama’s new war plan - accelerating the training of Afghan soldiers - does not go far enough to meet the country’s defense needs.
Obama plans to dispatch 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan over six months - an accelerated timetable with a built-in endgame - that would have the first fresh Marines on the ground as early as Christmas, a senior administration official said. Obama also will ask NATO allies to contribute 5,000 to 10,000 new troops to the separate international force in Afghanistan, diplomats said.
Obama’s plan emphasizes stepped-up training for Afghan forces, a goal aimed at speeding the handover of the nation’s security to Afghan security forces.
Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, the new head of a US-NATO command responsible for training and developing Afghan soldiers and police, said yesterday that although the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 troops by Oct. 31, 2010, no fixed higher target has been set. There is a notional goal of eventually fielding 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police, but Caldwell said that could change.
“Although that is a goal and where we think it could eventually go to, it’s not a hard, firm, fixed number,’’ he said.
For now, Caldwell’s orders are to reach the targets of 134,000 soldiers and 96,800 police by next October.
General Sher Mohammad Karimi, operational commander of Afghanistan’s defense ministry, said a 134,000-member Afghan National Army is shy of what is needed.
“The 134,000 army, which has been approved so far, it is not enough for our country,’’ he said. “We have requested to increase that number to at least 240,000.’’
He said that even during the 1970s, during the reign of King Mohammad Zahir, the ranks of the Afghan army didn’t fall below 200,000 - and the target was for 250,000 troops. “Then, everywhere was peace. There was no fighting,’’ he said. “Today, with Taliban militants and international terrorists, we even need more troops than during the king’s time.’’
President Hamid Karzai learned details of the new US strategy in Afghanistan during an hour-long videoconference call with Obama. A presidential palace spokesman said the two discussed troops levels, security, and political and economic elements of his revised war plan yesterday morning.
The Afghan president’s office declined to disclose details about their conversation, but a close confidant said Karzai was happy with the discussion.
More troops would be welcomed by US service members at Forward Operating Base Airborne, located 22 miles west of Kabul in Wardak Province.
“Sure we want more troops, more help. We’re overstretched. Many hands make lighter work,’’ said Staff Sergeant Joel Mabry, of Cullman, Ala., who is deployed with an engineering battalion from the Alabama National Guard.
He said with more infantry and other combat troops arriving, the work of the engineers would skyrocket. His unit has been moving around US outposts and bases insulating tents, building hot showers, and doing other jobs.
Some soldiers, however, wondered whether their deployments will be extended. That was a rumor spreading around the Second Battalion, 287th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, which is due to rotate back to the United States within a month.
“If it happens, the morale is high among the troops. It wouldn’t be a problem for me,’’ said First Lieutenant Chris Stachura, of Pulaski, Wis., a battalion officer.