President Barack Obama has tripled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and as part of that surge is pouring $1-billion a month into a training effort aimed at creating a powerful Afghan army ready to protect its own citizens by 2014.
As Canada winds down its combat role, the 950 trainers pledged by Ottawa Tuesday will eventually join that surge, which amounts to the "Americanization" of the training mission in the war-torn country, a critical part of the exit strategy in a war that now involves a Soviet-scale commitment of more than 120,000 foreign troops.
Years of fitful pacification operations by ill-co-ordinated NATO forces - including a Canadian battle group in Kandahar - have been matched by a mostly failed effort to build, train and equip Afghan soldiers and police.
Now the costly training effort (the $1-billion a month is more than Afghanistan's entire government budget) is aimed at turning the rag-tag, largely illiterate recruits into a reliable, if not sophisticated, army. To succeed they will need to be instilled with sufficient discipline, loyalty, and pay not to desert in droves when facing the Taliban or, worse, defect with their newly acquired military skills to fight for the insurgency.
Training will be far safer than the risky instruction Canadians have been trying to deliver for years by embedding small groups of mentors inside Afghan battalions sent alongside NATO troops into combat. Those so-called OMLTs - Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams, pronounced "omelette" - deployed with Afghan units and were among the most dangerous assignments for Canadian troops in Kandahar.
That role will end, along with all combat, next summer. The replacement Canadians' role - likely in Kabul - will involve roughly 1,000 trainers confined "inside the wire" of training bases by the sort of caveats that Prime Minister Stephen Harper once decried when other NATO nations kept their troops away from the fighting.
But while the training effort should be relatively safe, it still represents a significant military presence.
Canada's trainers will be teaching soldiering to recruits who are often illiterate and lack any notion of a military loyal to a civilian democratic authority, despite living in a wild and violence-torn nation and usually being familiar with the ubiquitous AK-47, a household staple in Afghanistan.
Building an indigenous military, measured in the hundreds of thousands, in a few years remains an enormous undertaking. Even in Iraq, a far more sophisticated society with a literate population and where almost every adult male had some military experience in a conscript army, the U.S. effort suffered years of failures and setbacks.
In Afghanistan it's much harder.
There's no point in teaching gun handling to a recruit who can't read or paying soldiers who can't add the funds in a bank account.
"You know, had you asked me last November when we were starting the NATO training mission, 'Hey, is literacy important?' … my philosophy was, hey, look, we're here to train soldiers and policemen; you know, if they want some literacy, they can do it on their own, but that's not what we're here to do," admitted Lieutenant-General William B. Caldwell, the U.S. officer in charge of the new training effort.
But with one in four soldiers deserting and overwhelming corruption among newly trained police, boot camp now starts with basic literacy.
``Now I am an absolute zealot about literacy," Gen. Caldwell said in a video link from the Pentagon. "You can't do anything without literacy. You can't teach them how to read the serial number on their weapon, you can't teach them how to read a map, you can't teach somebody how to account for and inventory equipment."
Barely one in 10 Afghan recruits is literate. By next summer, the training program expects to have taught 100,000 recruits rudimentary reading.
Gen. Caldwell says he is making progress. For instance the police attrition rate - through death, desertion, defection to the Taliban and simple disappearance - has dropped to about 25 per cent annually, down from 70 per cent.
``We really don't know where they go to, to be completely honest," admitted Gen. Caldwell. ``I mean … that's very, very difficult to track over here.
Pay is way up. Soldiers and police in a high-violence province such as Kandahar earn $250 a month, five times what they were paid three years ago. Yet that rate is lower than the Taliban, which hires willing gunmen for about $300 a month.
Estimates vary widely as to the needed size of an Afghan army. Some analysts suggest 500,000 soldiers and perhaps half as many police. The U.S. targets are smaller: 170,000 military and 135,000 police by the summer of 2011, both nearly double the levels set only two years ago.
Gen. Caldwell concedes that even with improving retention rates through better pay, he expects to recruit and train three Afghans for every one that is willing to stay in uniform and fight for the widely discredited and unpopular government of President Hamid Karzai.