The Afghan National Army will be ready to fight the Taliban without the direct help of international forces by 2013, says General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the chief spokesman for the Afghan military.
"Within the next four years we will take the complete responsibility of the security from the international community, and the international forces will stay on their bases to support ANA forces," Gen. Azimi told The Globe and Mail during an interview in the heavily fortified compound of the Ministry of Defence.
"Maybe it will go one year forward or one year backward. But the aim of the Afghans and the international community is to accelerate this process."
The General's assessment comes as Canada and other NATO countries weigh the time, expense and lives they have given to the mission. Canada is scheduled to end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2011.
It also preceded the deadliest attack on coalition forces in more than a year. Eight U.S. troops and two Afghan soldiers were killed in Nuristan province on the border with Pakistan on Saturday when 300 insurgents attacked an outpost at the base of a mountain and then a U.S. base higher up. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which was launched from a mosque in a nearby village.
Those running the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan agree with Gen. Azimi that, with adequate assistance from foreign armies, the day when the ANA can fight its own fight against the insurgency is in sight. It is not unrealistic to assume that the Afghan army could be operating independently in the field within four years, said Canadian Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay, ISAF's chief spokesman in Afghanistan.
Even now, the Afghan army, together with the Afghan National Police, is in charge of security in Kabul. About half the troops in the Afghan army have the skills to plan and execute operations without help from foreign forces, Gen. Tremblay said, and more ANA soldiers become fully competent every month.
U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, wants to increase the size of the ANA from its current strength of about 96,000 troops to 124,000 by next year, and then double that number by 2013. At that point, the number of fully trained Afghan soldiers would roughly equal the existing international contingent.
During a speech in London last week, Gen. McChrystal argued that increasing the number of ISAF soldiers in the short term will "buy time" until the ANA can take full responsibility for national security in 2013.
Afghan officials do not believe they will have any trouble filling the uniforms. There are plenty of young men in Afghanistan looking for work, and the $70 a month they receive as soldiers is better than the wages of even district council leaders.
Among Afghans, the ANA is one of the most respected public organizations in the country, far outranking the police, foreign troops or the national government. Still, the speed with which the Afghan army becomes independent will depend on ensuring that attrition does not eat into the gains, said Gen. Tremblay.
In a recent report to the U.S. government, Gen, McChrystal called for a change in strategy to focus on protecting Afghan citizens rather than seeking out the Taliban, much as the Canadian military is doing on a pilot basis in the Dand district southwest of Kandahar.
"If there's game-changers in Afghanistan - and we're slowly proving that the strategy that Gen. McChrystal is putting forward is making gains and slowly the insurgents are being pushed back and separated from the Afghan national population - that is going to help the Afghan national forces to hold and to participate and to build at the local level," Gen. Tremblay said.
Ottawa has said Canadian troops may remain in Afghanistan after 2011 to help with development and social programs. But the end of combat operations is scheduled to come two years before the ANA, according to Gen. Azimi's calculations, is able to operate independently.
"You could make the case" that Canada is ending its combat role in Afghanistan two years too early, said Gen. Tremblay. "It's really up to Canada to decide it. And so far we're out of here."
The deteriorating security situation and the corruption that is endemic at all levels of the Afghan government - and that is delaying the results of August's presidential election - have soured many Canadians on the mission.
But Gen. Azimi said Canadians must realize that the international forces have been a positive presence in his country.
If the people of Afghanistan trust the ANA, it is because Canadian and other international troops helped the army learn how to do its job, Gen. Azimi told The Globe.
"As I speak with you, seven million boys and girls are going to school. When women's rights were violated, you can see that the media immediately broadcast that," he said.
"We have a free press. We have 20 local TV channels in Afghanistan. Four million people are using cell phones. Four million people have been repatriated. There are hundreds of schools, clinics, and hospitals in Afghanistan."
Canadians "are sending their sons and their daughters here. They are spending money in Afghanistan. Their sons and daughters are being killed in Afghanistan. They should realize why they are spending money and why their sons and daughters are giving their lives."