KABUL — As they struggle to attract and retain more recruits into the Afghan National Army, American commanders are hoping that two small adjustments will begin to make a big difference.

The Afghan government recently boosted soldier salaries to almost as much as the Taliban pays.

And starting next month, U.S. military trainers will teach Afghan recruits to read before they teach them to shoot straight.

“We think if the word gets out that you not only go through your basic soldier skills, but you also get some literacy training while you’re doing that, [it] will be a real incentive,” Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who commands the NATO training mission, told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday.

“What the Afghans tell me is that that’s a real draw for them, if they can have some literacy training,” Caldwell added, noting that as many as 65 percent of Afghan army recruits may be illiterate.

Gates focused his Afghanistan tour this week on gauging the ability of U.S.-led coalition forces to accelerate the training of Afghan soldiers and police — a key element of President Barack Obama’s war strategy intended to eventually allow American soldiers to begin to come home.

The Afghan army currently numbers about 97,000 soldiers, with a target of 134,000 by November 2010 and 240,000 by 2013. Meanwhile, the end goal for the 94,000-strong national police force is 160,000. Those forces are to gradually assume lead security responsibilities across the country, allowing Americans to pull back and, ultimately, pull out.

Two of the war’s top commanders assured Gates that despite eight years of false starts — and reports from field officers questioning the quality of current Afghan forces — they are finally getting the resources they need to accomplish the training mission.

“There has never been the intensity of effort and the commitment of forces and the monetary backing to do what we’re doing today,” said Caldwell, who arrived one month ago after commanding Army-wide learning at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

Caldwell and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the operational commander of the war and deputy to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, briefed reporters traveling with Gates at Camp Eggers in Kabul.

The commanders said the additional 30,000 U.S. troops Obama ordered to Afghanistan, and a buzzing new Joint Operations Center staffed by 150 people from 42 countries to coordinate the fight, puts the U.S. in the best position to succeed in the war.

“I think we have got all the pieces coming together here,” Gates said.

“I started here in ’02 when there were no institutions, there was no [Afghan] Security Forces,” said Rodriguez’s executive officer, Col. Marty Schweitzer. “I’m here today and they’re on their second elections … I do see progress.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday predicted that Afghans could be ready to take over leadership of the country’s security in five years, but he added that Afghanistan would require outside support for another 15 or 20 years.

“They’ve already, as you know, taken the lead in the province of Kabul, minus one district,” said Rodriquez. “And they’re doing pretty good not only in Kabul but out in the districts of the Kabul province.”

Caldwell said recruiting and retaining Afghan security forces, as well as grooming local leaders, remain the greatest challenges.

“I believe there’s enough Afghan leaders out there, and the potential for enough Afghan leaders to emerge so that we can accomplish the mission,” Rodriguez said.

The need is particularly great in the south, Rodriquez added, where there is an imbalance of too many coalition forces working alongside too few Afghans.

Recruiting and retention has been lowest in areas with the most fighting as increasing numbers of Afghan soldiers go AWOL.

U.S. officials hope to reverse that trend. And the recent boost in starting pay for Afghan soldiers — to $240 from $180 per month — could make a difference. The Taliban is reportedly paying its recruits between $250-$350 per month.

Caldwell said 2,659 Afghan recruits signed up in the first seven days of December, compared to 831 in all of September. And he said he learned Wednesday that 60 of the 80 recent deserters in one unit had returned since the pay raise announcement, an unusually high number.

“I personally believe it’s less about the money than it is about feeding their family,” Rodriguez said.

Given widespread accounts of the poor performance and reliability of the Afghan security forces, the generals were asked how they expected to improve the situation.

“That’s a good question,” Caldwell said. “There’s quantity and then there’s quality.”

The general said he expected the new literacy training program would help.

Gates’ plane was grounded in Kabul by bad weather, scrapping plans to visit troops in Kandahar and instead leading to impromptu visits to the Afghan National Army Air Corps headquarters at Kabul International Airport and the U.S. Embassy.

Lt. Col. James Duben, the squadron commander for international advisers training Afghan army helicopter pilots, told Gates he hopes to have the first Afghans flying their Russian-made M-17 and M-35 helicopters into battle by April 2010.

In Kabul, Duben said, he currently has 57 Afghan pilots of MI-17 transport and cargo helicopters, and another 20 qualified pilots scattered throughout the country. Eleven Afghan pilots have been trained to fly the lighter M-35 attack aircraft,

Already, he added, cargo pilots are conducing noncombat medical evacuations and nearly every day they run resupply missions to coalition troops and Afghan units.

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