Five months ago, Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed wrote in the Washington Post, “the best way to bring our troops home sooner while succeeding in Afghanistan is to build a stronger Afghan military and government.” Since we stood up the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan over 21 months ago, we can say that developing the Afghan forces is well on track.

Through a NATO command, 33 countries are dedicated to the mission of training, equipping, fielding, and partnering with Afghan forces. Over the past two years, an additional 113,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been trained and are working with 130,000 NATO. Taken together, the NATO-Afghan force has enabled the start of geographic transition that will continue through December 2014. In seven areas of Afghanistan, encompassing 20 percent of the population, Afghan Army and Police are already leading security efforts.

As Afghan forces are readied to assume more security responsibility, combined NATO-Afghan operations are also clearing insurgent strongholds in Helmand, Kandahar, and Kunduz and normalcy is slowly returning to areas that only knew war. Local militias are integrating into the formal security structure; commerce is returning; and schools are opening. GDP has increased from $170 under the Taliban to $1,000 per capita in 2010, almost all Afghans now have access to basic health services (only nine percent did in 2002), school enrollment increased from 900,000 (mainly boys) to almost seven million (37 percent girls), and women now serve in government. There are even four female officers training to be pilots. Further, most of the country is now connected via mobile phones, highways, and common purpose—assume responsibility for its own development, governance, and security.

While the Afghan surge is incomplete and still reversible, it was by no means pre-ordained. Though the international community had been supporting the Afghan government, military, and police for several years, efforts suffered from limited resources and poor unity of effort. In 2009, the Afghan security force was underpaid, untrained, ill-equipped, illiterate, and poorly led. The Afghan National Army could not conduct counterinsurgency operations and soldiers were deserting faster than could be recruited. And the Afghan police were deployed before training and lacked the armor needed to survive in a counterinsurgency environment.

The limited capabilities, poor morale, and leadership deficit could not prevent the Taliban from regrouping and conducting attacks. Numerous government and non-government studies documented rising violence rates and the shortcomings in the Afghan National Security Force. In spite of these challenges, the international community committed to grow the force and rebuild the all-volunteer Afghan Army, Air Force, and Police into a professional force loyal to the Afghan people. Much work remains, but the force of 2011 bears little resemblance to the one NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan began advising two years ago.

The force is on track to reach its 2011 milestone of 305,000 and will grow another 47,000 over the next year. Over the next several years, the force will develop key support forces such as logistics, human resources, and finance. Professionalizing the force is a key to creating enduring institutions and reducing Afghan reliance on ISAF for combat support. Additionally, there is a substantial effort to develop sustainable systems and functioning ministries that can plan, program, budget, and execute ministerial goals.

In support of this effort, there are about 500 NTM-A advisors who work at the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior. These advisors support their Afghan counterparts to ensure the necessary policies and systems are in place to implement strategic guidance from the President of Afghanistan and the ministers. This work includes everything from creating a modern personnel system that can identify, track, and manage personnel across the military and police to a comprehensive recruit screening process that vets, validates, and certifies Afghans’ eligibility for training.

To ensure the Afghan military and police are enduring, sustainable systems need further development. This takes time and requires patience. But development must continue. In the same article Senators Levin and Reed wrote: “Thirty years ago the United States worked to help Afghans reclaim their country from Soviet invaders. With the departure of Soviet forces, we declared victory and turned away from helping Afghans build a stable country with effective security forces. On Sept. 11, 2001, we discovered the tragic consequences that such inattention can have. That is a lesson we cannot afford to learn again.” Through continued U.S. and NATO support beyond geographic transition, partnering beyond 2014 will be critical to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV., United States Army, has served as the commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan since November 2009.