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Afghan Forces Need More Time

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Only 1 per cent of Afghan police and soldiers are capable of operating independently, a top U.S. commander said on Wednesday, raising further doubts about whether Afghan forces will be able to take on a still-potent insurgency as the West withdraws.

Just 29 Afghan army units and seven Afghan police units - together about 1 per cent of total security forces - are now deemed "independent," U.S. Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti told reporters at the Pentagon. He said even the independent units require limited combat and logistical support from NATO-led forces.

Almost half of Afghan forces, 42 per cent, are rated "effective with advisers," the second-highest rating that Western forces give to local troops, said Scaparrotti, who commands day-to-day U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan.

The abilities and shortcomings of local forces becomes increasingly central to Afghanistan's future as the United States and its Western allies press ahead with plans to move decisively out of the country after more than 10 years of war.

"These soldiers will fight, particularly at the company level, there's no question about that. And they're going to be good enough as we build them to secure their country and to counter the insurgency," Scaparrotti said.

"Will they be at the standard we have for our soldiers? No, not at least the conventional forces."

The West has spent billions of dollars since the toppling of the Taliban government in 2001 on trying to build a sufficiently large, professional military in Afghanistan.

While there is now a large force trained in basic fighting and police duties, Afghan personnel remain heavily reliant on NATO for everything from medical evacuations to airstrikes to intelligence gathering. Afghan soldiers and police also grapple with illiteracy, corruption and deep suspicion from many of their own people.

Nevertheless, local forces will increasingly shoulder the burden in the war. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week that U.S. forces would start ceding the lead for combat operations to Afghans in 2013, ahead of an end-of-2014 NATO deadline for putting Afghan forces in charge across Afghanistan.

When they do take over, local forces will be required to battle a weakened, yet still threatening, insurgency. Recognizing that the Taliban cannot be defeated on the battlefield, the Obama adminsitration is trying to broker a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

As of August, the Pentagon said that only one Afghan army battalion was rated independent. Even it, however, required help from NATO for combat support and enablers.

Afghanistan also will need to secure outside help to pay for security well into the future. That task may be even harder if Afghan forces are seen as inefficient or unprofessional.

Plans under discussion would shave Afghan forces from a peak of 352,000 to perhaps about 230,000 as NATO nations seek to balance Afghanistan's insurgent threat and budget pressures at home.