WASHINGTON– Afghan national security forces are larger, fully engaged and leading the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, the U.S. general in charge of training them said today.

“The [Afghan army is] leading about 60 percent of the operations they participate in, and have proven themselves as an effective fighting force,” Army Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone, commander of Multinational Security Transition Command Afghanistan, said in a news conference with Pentagon reporters via video-conference from Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The Afghan National Army is becoming larger and better equipped, with new weapons and vehicles. The force is 68,000 soldiers strong, but is in the process of growing to 134,000, Cone said. About 26,000 soldiers were trained in 2008, and in 2009 the army is expecting an additional 28,000 soldiers, he added.

“This expansion is much more than raw numbers,” the general explained. “The Afghan National Army is undergoing, at the same time, a significant force modernization effort. We are already well into fielding the force with NATO weapons, and also have begun fielding up-armored Humvees.”

Coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan also have invested considerably in improving the national police, Cone said, noting the police force has grown by 25 percent throughout the past year.

The cornerstone program for police reformation has been “focused district development” – removing a district’s entire police force for in-depth training while a specially trained unit of Afghan police takes care of the district. The need for improved security along the Afghan-Pakistan border has sparked a separate effort to reform the Afghan border police, Cone said. About 11,000 police are in place at posts along the Pakistan border, with 18,000 positions authorized.

“More important probably than numbers is the quality of those police forces in regard to their training and equipping,” Cone said. “Border police is a tough mission here in Afghanistan because of the remoteness and the isolation that they face.”

Cone said he expects to rebuild and re-equip some 52 border police companies through winter. So far, 17 companies have been flown to police training centers for leadership and tactical training and to be re-equipped. The border police should be completely restructured by June, the general said.

Cone said he generally is pleased with the acceleration, growth and performance of the Afghan army and police. The forces have accomplished much in terms of security, considering the country’s infrastructure and financial constraints, but all coalition leaders can do at this point is continue to assess and reassess conditions, he said.

“I think all of us are relatively pleased with what the Afghans have performed in this last year,” Cone said. “But right now, I would think that’s about as fast as we can go in a responsible manner, given the constraints that we have, and I think we’ll reassess again as the security situation on the ground changes and the assumptions we make about Afghan development become clearer.

“All in all,” he continued, “we have made positive strides in fielding professional security forces that are competent, diverse and capable of providing security throughout Afghanistan. We have a long way to go, though. This effort requires sustained support not just from the United States but from the international community.”

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