Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai recognized the death of Osama bin Laden as an "important day" for the fight against terrorism, he remains convinced that the Western military presence in his country needs to be reconsidered. "Year after year, day after day, we have said the fighting against terrorism is not in the villages of Afghanistan, not among the poor people of Afghanistan," Karzai said, as part of his push for NATO to focus its attention on Pakistan.
He's soon going to get to make that decision himself. President Barack Obama has promised to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July; preliminary reports suggest that 5,000 troops could be removed then, with another 5,000 to come by year's end. As the Americans step back, the plan is for the Afghan National Army to step up. The United States has invested a lot in Afghanistan's military: It is drawing up plans to use its special operations forces to mentor Afghan soldiers, and it spent more than $9 billion in 2010 to develop the force.
Although many questions about the Afghan National Army's capabilities still remain, it can also call on a deep reservoir of public goodwill. The military enjoys an approval rating of over 80 percent, easily making it the most highly regarded public institution in Afghanistan. Salaries are also rising, and the military hopes to meet its goal of reaching 171,000 soldiers by November.
Although the war in Afghanistan began before U.S. engagement in Iraq, the United States waited until late 2006 and 2007 to begin devoting serious resources to training local Afghan troops. In 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal made local forces a linchpin of his counterinsurgency plan.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, has been an enthusiastic supporter of increasing the strength of Afghanistan's military. Following the killing of bin Laden, he emphasized that the terrorist mastermind's death could weaken ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban. "The key is making sure there are no safe havens for those transnational terrorist groups in Afghanistan," he said -- a task that will soon fall primarily on the Afghan army.
From the beginning, it proved difficult to convince Afghan soldiers to stay in the army after training; desertion rates were high throughout the first half of the decade. In 2003 and 2004, soldiers received a mere $3 a day, while the Taliban were paying $5 to $10. Then U.S. forces gave everyone a raise. Now, the lowest-ranking Afghan soldier can earn $165 to $245 per month, while generals earn around $1,000. Here, Afghan soldiers walk pass the destroyed Darul Aman palace in Kabul on May 7.
The close relationship between the U.S. military and the Afghanistan National Army has also given the Americans a crash course in Afghan culture. Here, Afghan soldiers dance attan, a traditional national dance, at a U.S. Marines outpost in Helmand province on May 9.
The U.S. training effort has sometimes led it to partner with some unsavory elements. Here, an Afghan boy looks on as U.S. Marines carry out a patrol in Helmand province on May 5 with Afghan army soldiers and members of an arbaki, or local defense force. These arbakis have often been accused of being a greater torment to local Afghans than the Taliban they’re supposedly fighting.
An Afghan soldier stands atop a blast wall on April 6, trying to get mobile-phone coverage at a military base in the southern province of Farah. Taliban militants -- out of fear that NATO-led forces can track them through phone signals -- regularly demand that cellular companies switch off their networks.
The state of the Afghan National Army prior to the U.S. intervention was dismal. As recently as 2009, a mere 35 percent of troops passed basic marksmanship qualifications; today, after an intensive training push, the figure has leaped to 95 percent.
As violence in Afghanistan escalates, local troops bear the burden of casualties and fatalities. More than 300 Afghan soldiers and about 500 policemen died in the first half of 2010 alone, about the same number that died in the entire previous year. Above, an Afghan soldier runs for cover during combat drills at the Kabul Military Training Center on Oct. 2, 2010.
As NATO has intensified its military efforts in Afghanistan, the situation has also grown more dangerous. Insurgents have ratcheted up their attacks, employing everything from roadside bombs to ambushes and mortar strikes. Here, Afghan soldiers -- who will soon face these risks firsthand -- march during a graduation ceremony in Kabul in 2008.
Afghanistan's police and army are due to take control of security in seven areas selected by Karzai in June, and they plan to expand their authority across the country by 2014. Here, Afghan officers march during a graduation ceremony at the Ghazi Military Training Center in Kabul on March 31.
The Afghan military is still extremely vulnerable to improvised explosive devices, which is one of the primary threats it faces along the roads in Helmand and surrounding towns in the south. In an attempt to stem the casualties from these attacks, American medics traveled to Afghanistan to help train 600 nursing students at the Davoud Khan military hospital over a period of two years. Here, an injured Afghan soldier lies on a bed at the hospital on April 23.
There are about 130,000 international forces deployed in Afghanistan, under the leadership of NATO. Here, an Afghan soldier smiles for the photographer in a U.S. Marine compound in Helmand province on May 7.