NATO: Don't Shortchange Afghanistan's Future

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Date Published: 
May 17, 2012

By Jeffrey Dressler and Paraag Shukla

This week, members of NATO will descend on Chicago for a summit that could determine the future of the mission in Afghanistan. That future will be determined by the size and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Thus far, neither the U.S. nor NATO countries have been willing to pay for it. Coming out of Chicago, the U.S. and NATO countries must have a clear plan and more importantly, commitments to sustain and fund the ANSF at their peak of 352,000 forces beyond 2014.

The Chicago conference comes on the heels of President Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan and the signing of a ten-year Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This month’s gathering in the Windy City is critical because it can solidify the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014. The President’s decision to draw down to 68,000 U.S. troops by October 2012 and withdraw the majority of U.S. troops by the end of 2014  means that Afghans will be forced to bear the burden security duties sooner rather than later. This month’s summit should produce concrete, actionable plans for providing continued financial and security assistance support for the Afghan government and its security forces to harden the Afghan state against a determined foe, one that will not be defeated by 2014.  This will require more money for a longer period of time than either the U.S. or NATO countries have been willing to concede.

Funding for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is the primary financial requirement for Afghanistan. Afghan forces have already begun to take lead security responsibility in several important areas and they are scheduled to assume full responsibility for Afghanistan’s security by the end of 2014. Currently, there are more than 300,000 army and police with a plan to reach 352,000 well before the end of 2012. According to Department of Defense cost projections, sustaining a force of that size would cost between $6 billion and $7 billion per year, but it could probably be done more cheaply. The Afghan government is willing and able to contribute about $500 million. That leaves the U.S. and the coalition to make up the remaining $6 billion. So far, it appears that the U.S. and the NATO countries combined are unwilling to foot the bill and are instead seeking to reduce the size of the ANSF to fit their desired budget.

During the president’s speech from Afghanistan earlier this month, he said Afghans will sustain a 352,000-member security force for three years, or until 2015, at which point it will contract. The costs associated with supporting a smaller force of approximately 230,000 troops fall to slightly more than $4 billion. President Obama did not mention whether this contraction would or should be the result of a conditions-based assessment that a force of that size was no longer needed. Instead, the decision to shrink the force appears to be based on desired financial contributions—in short, at whatever level the U.S. and NATO can scrounge up the money to pay for. This is a mistake.

After more than ten years of war at the cost of more than half a trillion dollars (or more than $100 billion per year over the past three years), continuing to pay approximately $6 billion dollars per year for several years beyond 2014 is a smart investment and the best way to ensure that the hard fought gains over the past several years are not lost to a resurgent Taliban.

With most U.S. forces leaving in 2014, it will fall to the ANSF to prevent the insurgency from re-establishing a significant territorial and psychological grasp over the country and its people. Doing so will require a large Afghan force for at least several years beyond 2014. Perhaps by 2017 or 2018, if the insurgency has been further reduced and no longer poses an existential threat to the Afghan state, it may be possible to reduce the size of the Afghan security forces and the costs associated with sustaining the force. According to estimates from the Department of Defense and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments it costs approximately $45,000 to sustain one Afghan Army soldier for one year vs. over $1,000,000 for one U.S. soldier. The former is far cheaper and comparatively a much more sustainable investment even though there is a significant tradeoff in terms of capability.

Opponents of the plan to maintain the ANSF at 352,000 argue that the costs and logistical burdens associated with a force of that size are too great for the Afghans to bear. They are right. There is no situation in the foreseeable future where the Afghans will be able to pay several billion dollars a year to maintain their own security forces, despite considerable and yet untapped mineral wealth. That means the U.S. and international community will have to continue to fund an unsustainable Afghan security force for years to come. This is the reality, and we must accept it.

Recently, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said the aim of the upcoming summit in Chicago is to “get as much money as we can get for as long as we can get it.” Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan said he was willing to support the Pentagon’s estimate that the ANSF will require $4-$5 billion annually “if it will make a difference.” First, the Obama administration must set the tone for the discussions in Chicago with a firm request that the ANSF be sustained at their peak of 352,000 beyond 2015 and that any reduction in the force will be conditions-based. Second, the administration should make clear that the U.S., with assistance from the Afghans, will contribute the majority of the approximately $6 billion sustainment costs beyond 2015 for as long as necessary with a firm pledge by NATO to make up the balance. President Obama would ultimately need congressional approval for the funding, but if he makes a firm case for it, he stands a reasonable chance of being successful. Of course, an ANSF of 352,000 does not guarantee success, but given the security conditions that are likely to face Afghanistan after U.S. and coalition forces draw down substantially by 2014, it is perhaps the best alternative option—anything less is penny-wise, pound foolish.

Jeffrey Dressler and Paraag Shukla study Afghanistan at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. Dressler focuses on security dynamics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Shukla focuses on governance in Afghanistan.       

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