The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says a Pentagon decision to change how it grades Afghan police and soldiers has helped it present a more positive report
on the abilities of Afghan security forces.
Training Afghan police and soldiers to take over security in the country after the planned withdrawal of foreign troops at the end of 2014 is the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy for smoothly exiting the war in Afghanistan.
In essence, the GAO says the changes to the Pentagon's definition of "readiness" makes Afghan forces appear better prepared for the day when foreign troops have left the country.
The GAO says the change increased the number of Afghan units rated at the highest level of readiness.
In the most recent of its twice-annual reports to Congress -- issued in April 2012 -- the Pentagon said Afghan police and soldiers "continued to make substantial progress."
It said 15 out of 219 Afghan National Army units were able to operate at the highest level -- "independently with assistance" from foreign advisors.
About 40 out of 435 police units got the same rating.
But the GAO notes that the highest rating by the Pentagon at the start of 2011 was "independent" -- meaning Afghan units are able to carry out a wide range of security operations and other tasks without any help from coalition forces.
The U.S. government watchdog warns that "several long-standing challenges may affect the sustainment of capable Afghan national security forces."
It says those challenges include costs, the key skill gaps of Afghan forces, and "limited ministerial capacity" on the part of the Afghan government.
The GAO has previously reported that the Afghan government has limited ability to financially support its security forces and is dependent on donor contributions.
It also says shortfalls in leadership and logistical capabilities for Afghan forces persist.
Moreover, the GAO maintains that the Afghan defense and interior ministries, which oversee the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, continue to require coalition support to accomplish their security missions.
The GAO concludes that the U.S. exit strategy needs to focus more on those problems in order to reduce the reliance of Afghan security forces on support from the international coalition in Afghanistan.
With reporting by Reuters