Afghanistan has accelerated training for army recruits and expects to have a combat-ready force of 80,000 troops by early 2009, well ahead of initial targets, the country's defence minister said on Friday.
Abdul Rahim Wardak told Reuters the effort was part of a strategy to take over the brunt of fighting from Nato troops as soon as possible. But he repeated Afghanistan still needed help to create a viable air force before taking over full leadership.
"It will save lives for our friends and allies," Wardak said in an interview after talks with Nato counterparts in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Wardak said US-backed army training was being stepped up with the aim of turning out 4,000 soldiers a month compared with 2,000 late last year, enabling Afghanistan to surpass an internationally agreed 2006 target of 70,000 troops by end-2010.
"We hope by April, May this year we will achieve that number and we are hopeful we will reach 80,000 by March, April of 2009," Wardak said.
Training of Afghan forces was already ahead of target but Wardak's announcement that the effort would be further accelerated underlined the push to off-load more of the combat burden from the 43,000-strong Nato-led force.
Many Europeans are opposed to sending troops to Afghanistan, where Nato took over the International Security Assistance Force in 2003. Rising casualties from Taliban and Al Qaeda attacks have added to the mission's unpopularity.
Wardak pointed to recent successes in security operations led by the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) with Nato support but stressed its lack of air forces meant it was still unable to be fully independent in the battle against Taliban insurgents.
"At the moment the ANA is suffering from a lack of air mobility, tactical ground mobility, fire power and logistics. So we have to have improvement in all those sectors," he said in a call to international allies for more equipment.
"We may get limited air power next month ... we don't know when we will have the final date for an Afghan air force that will operate independently."
Once trained, Afghan army recruits are sent to the front line as part of units in which Nato countries have "embedded" highly experienced Western soldiers able to mentor Afghan troops and bring in alliance aircraft if necessary.
Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged that effort was behind schedule, with officials estimating the alliance had only put up around 30 such mentoring teams compared with a requirement of more than 50.
"I am still not satisfied, but there is no question of a failure of the strategy," de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference at the Vilnius talks. (Reuters)
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