NATO is not meeting its target for assembling specialized trainers to build up Afghanistan's army and police forces, the key that would open the way to a withdrawal of coalition troops beginning next year.
An internal progress report from the training mission headquarters here warned that it "does not have the required number of trainers, which threatens our ability to sustain momentum through the summer of 2011 to develop and professionalize the Afghan national security force."
The Dec. 12 report, obtained by The Globe and Mail, said NATO member countries have so far pledged to fill just half of the 819 "critical" trainer slots that need to be filled if Afghanistan is to begin to assume responsibility next year for its own security.
Some nations that have made offers, including Canada, have yet to confirm their pledges or decide what kinds of skills and capabilities their trainers would bring.
"It's a huge jigsaw puzzle," said a senior NATO officer in Kabul. "Some countries can confirm their pledges right away. Others say they need time to resolve political and budgetary issues."
NATO has set a goal of deploying 2,800 multinational trainers working with the Afghan army and police by March of 2012. Included in that number are the "priority" trainers - including air force instructors, military doctors, counterinsurgency specialists and signal school teachers - that commanders say are needed now to build a self-sufficient Afghan security force.
Those priority slots have been particularly difficult to fill. In November, for example, Portugal, Italy, the Czech Republic and Croatia pledged 104 trainers to the NATO mission, according to the report by the international security co-operation arm of the training command.
Of those, only 35 would fill the critical-needs slots. Other specialists that have been promised by coalition countries have not arrived in Afghanistan. For example, the report said, 108 trainers that were due to arrive in Afghanistan this fall are 30 to 90 days late
"Converting pledges into deployed trainers is now critical," the report added, noting that Canada's pledge last month to send 750 trainers has yet to be either confirmed or clarified.
Until this year, training was uncoordinated and scattershot, with different countries using different methods and materials in their areas of operations. Much of the training was in the hands of the private American contractors DynCorp and Xe Services, which was formerly known as Blackwater.
Their contracts are set to end in March, although the NATO officer said private contractors could be a temporary "bridging" option if delays persist.
The bulk of the training of Afghan forces is still provided by those contractors, which have about 2,000 trainers working in the country. In contrast, there are 1,200 trainers from coalition military and police forces.
Publicly, NATO officials play down the impact of the delays on the strategy of building up the Afghan army and paramilitary police to a level where they can progressively take over from foreign forces and hold the Taliban insurgency at bay on their own.
"Obviously it's a long, detailed process to turn these pledges into real trainers on the ground," said Oana Lungescu, the NATO spokeswoman in Brussels. "Yes, there are still shortfalls but there are no show-stoppers."
A further complication is that some contributing countries, including Canada, have placed restrictions on how and where their trainers can be used in Afghanistan.
The pledge of Canadian trainers last month came with the caveat that they not be used outside the Kabul area or "outside the wire," such as in mentoring roles that would put them in the field with Afghan soldiers or police officers.
Although the makeup of the Canadian training force has yet to be announced, the limitation sets a domino effect into motion. To find places for them, NATO commanders will likely have to move trainers from other countries out of bases and schools in the Afghan capital.
"Obviously that's one of the problems and it's got to be factored in," said Ms. Lungescu. "Who can go where has to be sorted out."
Years of rushing Afghan recruits with little training into combat produced an infantry-heavy and still illiterate army that coalition commanders say still lacks a proficient officer corps to lead it. Border and uniform police were hired and often put to work with no training at all in what NATO officials now call the "recruit and assign" model.
For the past year, the coalition has tried to pull the disparate training operations under one umbrella organization based in Kabul and has focused on provided at least six weeks of basic training and literacy courses for Afghan recruits before deploying them. But it is still discovering training programs operating around the country that headquarters commanders did not know existed, as the American commander of the NATO training mission, Lieutenant-General William B. Caldwell IV, wrote in a defence journal article this month.