Afghan National Army Reaches Benchmark, but Are They Fit for Duty?

The Afghan National Army has reached its goal of 134,000 trained Afghan soldiers two months ahead of schedule, it announced earlier this week.

"Less than six months ago, ANA strength stood at about 107,000 trained soldiers with a target of reaching 134,000 by October 2010," International Security Assistance Force Commander Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday. "It is truly remarkable that we are able to congratulate the Defense Ministry today for achieving their strength goal for October two months ahead of schedule."

The announcement came amid an increasingly deadly summer for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and waning American public support for the war. With a U.S. troop drawdown date set for July 2011, President Obama's plan in Afghanistan depends heavily on Afghan troops being able to provide their own security.

VIDEO: Capability of the Afghan military may affect when U.S. troops can leave.
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But on a sprawling training base outside Kabul littered with burned out Soviet tanks from previous wars, it can be hard to see how the Afghan troops will be capable of taking over from U.S. forces anytime soon.

"About 95 to 98 percent have never driven," said U.S. Army Capt. Jon Doiron, who teaches Afghan recruits how to drive. "We are looking at about 90 to 95 percent that are also illiterate in the training as well, so we are having to teach them how to read the different gauges -- everything on the vehicle, as well as any sort of safety warning or anything like that."

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That figure of Afghans who can't read their own language has been a huge challenge, which the U.S. is now struggling to address.

Last November, literacy courses were voluntary and only 13,000 of the 200,000 security forces enrolled. For those taking the classes, the ratio of trainer to recruit averaged one to 79, such severe understaffing that some training facilities were on the verge of shutting down.

Changes in Training Improve Results

U.S. officials acknowledge that last year, they thought the training was so bad that it was deemed a failure.

But they believe they've made great strides this year as they revamped the training program entirely. In addition to driver training, part of the eight-week course includes mandatory reading, writing and simple mathematics.

The training now includes rudimentary combat medicine and a marksmanship course. Last year, only 35 percent passed the live-fire exercises, but this year the rate is up to 89 percent.

"Probably the biggest key was focusing on a lot of the hands-on portions of the training," said U.S. Army Lt. Jeffrey Courschaine, who trains Afghan trainers, "how to aim, how to hold the weapon, how to pull the trigger."

Despite Improvements, Success Remains Uncertain

The most important change may be the increase in trainers, double the numbers of last year, though officials say that's still not sufficient in some areas.

"When you are trying to develop an army of 134,000 -- that's our initial goal for this October -- you've really got to start putting the troops through training, and we weren't doing that," said Brig. David Paterson, a British assistant commanding general, in a July interview with ABC News.

The more intensive training has reversed many of the adverse trends. But with the challenges so immense, U.S. trainers readily admit that success is not a foregone conclusion.

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ABC News' Kristina Wong contributed to this report.

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