Pakistan says it will help train Afghan forces

Pakistan has told U.S. military leaders it is willing to help train Afghan soldiers to fight Taliban forces, the country’s army chief said Monday, a promising gesture by a government at times skeptical of Washington’s strategy.

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, in a rare briefing for foreign journalists, sought to counter criticism from the West that Pakistan is a reluctant ally when it comes to battling the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Kayani underscored the importance of having a stable, secure Afghanistan on Pakistan’s western border, and said his country had offered to help prepare the Afghan army to assume sole responsibility for the country’s security.

“We’re talking to the U.S. and [NATO forces]. We are interested in getting more involved in training of the Afghan national army,” Kayani said during the briefing at the Pakistani army’s heavily guarded headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. “This is good for the short term and the long term.”

Pakistan has rankled Obama administration officials because of its refusal to pursue Afghan Taliban groups who use Pakistan’s border areas as staging areas for attacks on U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan.

The training of Afghanistan’s national army and its police force is seen as a vital step in President Obama’s strategy to defeat the Taliban and prepare the country for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

In an assessment of the Afghan war released in the fall, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, said the Afghan army’s 92,000 troops needed to be expanded to 134,000 by October, and the nation’s police force needed to double, to 160,000 from 84,000.

Progress in preparing the Afghan security forces, McChrystal said in his assessment, “is critical in order to preserve the sustained commitment and support of the international community.”

But the progress has been slow. The Afghan army is burdened by corruption, meager pay and a lack of instructors. In December, Agence France-Presse news agency quoted a German commander with NATO forces as saying that 10,000 recruits have quit Afghanistan’s army, and at least 15% of the armed forces are drug addicts.

One of Pakistan’s strongest concerns about Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan has been the president’s timeline for beginning a pullout of troops by July 2011. The withdrawal would be gradual and contingent upon the readiness of Afghan security forces, officials in Washington have said. But Pakistani leaders worry that the United States will leave while Afghanistan remains unstable and unsecured.

“If you want the Afghan army to take over security, it’ll take four years to do it,” Kayani said.

The army chief said stabilizing Afghanistan was vital to the long-term security of Pakistan, a country locked in its own battle with homegrown Taliban insurgents who have carried out waves of suicide bombings at crowded markets, security installations, and mosques that have killed hundreds.

“Our objective is to have a peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan,” he said. “If we have that, I have no problems with Afghanistan.”