The Pentagon is sending 800 more American soldiers to Afghanistan in the coming weeks to work as trainers for the Afghan security forces. The contingent is needed because other NATO countries still haven't fulfilled their pledges to send their own troops to train the Afghan army and police.
A battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division will be heading to Afghanistan soon. The soldiers will work as trainers for at least several months. The unit is beyond the 30,000 additional troops that President Obama already approved for Afghanistan this year.
At a NATO foreign ministers meeting last week in Estonia, there was a sense of urgency about trainers for the Afghanistan forces.
"Today I have once again urged allies and partners to contribute to our training mission," said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "We will hand over responsibility when the Afghans are actually capable to take responsibility, and this is also a reason why I attach such strong importance to our training mission."
The mission is to prepare enough Afghan soldiers and police to begin taking responsibility for security by fall 2011, allowing U.S. and NATO forces to begin leaving the country. President Obama has said he wants to start bringing home U.S. troops as soon as July 2011.
By October 2011, Afghanistan is supposed to field a force of 300,000 soldiers and police. If that doesn't happen, it could delay plans to bring home American troops.
Filling The Gaps
NATO's commitment to the war has been hampered by dwindling political support throughout Europe. Alliance officials said during the meeting in Estonia that NATO has fallen 450 people short of a goal to supply 2,000 trainers for the Afghan National Police force by October.
But the 450 number is misleading, military officials say. They say that's the number that no NATO country has agreed to supply. The larger number is the 800 trainers that NATO had pledged to send, but are not yet in Afghanistan.
"A pledge is a pledge. It's not a person on the ground yet, performing a mission, making a difference, improving the quality of the police and the army over there," says Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the top American trainer for the Afghan security forces.
"The challenge we have in Afghanistan is it's not boots on the ground yet," Caldwell says.
NATO nations have said they will make good on those pledges of 800 trainers sometime this year. But that's not good enough for Caldwell. He has to fill in those gaps now.
The 800 NATO trainers are part of more than 2,000 training slots Caldwell has to fill. He will fill some slots by hiring private contractors.
Contractors -- mostly from the United States, and from companies that include the private security firm DynCorp International -- are doing most of the training in Afghanistan. There are some 3,000 contract trainers, compared with about 1,000 American military instructors. NATO only has a little more than 300 trainers.
A Looming Deadline
Even with all the contractors, Caldwell still needs more trainers.
Pentagon officials tell NPR that Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed to send hundreds more American soldiers to Afghanistan to serve as trainers because NATO still hasn't fulfilled its obligations. For years, Gates has urged his European counterparts to send more forces to Afghanistan.
Last month at a Pentagon briefing, Gates' frustration came through once again.
"My view is there has been a significant increase in trainers," Gates said. "We have got additional trainers from the Europeans, not as many as we would like."
Caldwell says if NATO doesn't come through with the promised trainers, he may have to ask the Pentagon for more U.S. military trainers, or find more American contractors.
"I'll have to fill it one way or another," he says.