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USZ and NATO officials have been moving toward a decision on a revised target for Afghanistan's fledgling army and police, possibly leaving them much smaller than the goal of 352,000 already approved by the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to be reached by October 2012.
While no final decisions have been made, a likely scenario would involve an annual USZ contribution of around $3 billion to $4 billion, with around another $1 billion from other NATO nations and a token contribution from the Afghan government.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the deliberations about the size and cost of the future Afghan forces would balance national security needs with the fiscal realities of Afghanistan and the nations that make up the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Maintaining an Afghan force of 352,000 would cost more than the Afghan government could afford and exceed Western nations' likely contribution, the diplomat said.
"European countries are looking hard at what they can contribute," the diplomat said.
Building a sufficiently strong, capable local security force is crucial to the Obama administration's plan to reduce USZ forces in Afghanistan more than 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled - without allowing the country to disintegrate into civil war.
Some NATO nations have seen the goal of building the police and army to 352,000 as a temporary, or "surge," target, which would make the force large enough to confront a tenacious Taliban, but would then subside over time. That view is not shared by all officials in Washington.
The issue was discussed initially at a meeting on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, last month, where USZ Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged fellow foreign ministers to "better define" NATO's future in Afghanistan and their likely financial support for Afghan forces.
Details of respective funding pledges, which to a large extent will determine how large an Afghan force is possible, may not be announced until a NATO summit to be held in Chicago in May. But European diplomats have said that a plateau force of 250,000 might be more realistic.
Such a scenario would be far less costly than the annual $130 billion Washington currently spends in Afghanistan, and it would represent around a third of the $11 billion the Obama administration put forward for Afghan forces in fiscal 2012.
Still, it would leave Washington responsible for the bulk of the cost, a prospect unlikely to be popular among USZ lawmakers as pressure to cut costs in an election year grows. The fiscal situation is even more ominous in Europe, where the credit ratings of nine of 17 euro zone countries were downgraded last week.
The Afghan government, expected to require about $7 billion a year in outside help after most foreign troops go home by 2015, will not be able to pay for its own military for years.
Last month, Afghanistan's finance minister warned that outside backers must not force it to choose between security and development.
HELL OF A LOT CHEAPER
Last week, Ivo Daalder, the USZ ambassador to NATO, was in Afghanistan in part to discuss the future of Afghan forces, which have grown in leaps and bounds but which remain reliant on foreign troops for many military tasks, from medical evacuation and airstrikes to intelligence gathering.
Pentagon spokesman George Little suggested it was premature to predict what changes might be made. "Absolutely no decisions have been reached by anyone on the final size of Afghanistan's security forces," he said.
Last year Obama administration quietly put forward the idea of a "transition dividend," which would reinvest some of the military savings created by Western troop reductions, to its NATO allies. But the concept has not gained much traction.
Last week, Poland's defense minister said that Afghanistan shouldn't expect NATO nations to subsidize its security forces indefinitely.
The final arrangements could be made between NATO partners at a ministerial meeting in April in Brussels, ahead of the Chicago summit.
Some officials worry that limiting funding for the Afghan police and army could undercut hard-fought security gains.
One USZ official familiar with Defense Department thinking said that "a lot of people inside DOD think that it's important to keep to higher numbers of (Afghan security) personnel."
Advocates of a larger force point to the destabilizing effect when Moscow ended funding for Afghan forces in the early 1990s. Afghanistan's government survived for several years after the 1989 departure of Soviet troops, only tipping into full-fledged civil war in 1992 when cash support dried up.
Ronald Neumann, a former USZ ambassador to Afghanistan, said it would be difficult to ensure that a smaller force was capable of keeping Afghanistan secure right away.
"It is faster to get big than good. If one wants to have a more qualified force that can be effective with smaller numbers that takes more time," he said.
One issue that has emerged in discussions is a rift over the Afghan Local Police, the quasi-militia groups that USZ officials believe could take a more important role as foreign forces withdraw. Many European officials oppose that idea and rights groups warn that some local police have been terrorizing and robbing the people they are supposed to protect.
One defense aide in Congress warned against precipitous decisions that could be more costly in the long run.
"The bottom line is you don't want this thing to come apart at the seams," the aide said. Supporting foreign forces, after all, "is a hell of a lot cheaper than keeping our forces there."
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