The Obama administration is placing a big bet that indigenous security forces can combat Taliban elements and keep the peace in Afghanistan, and Washington wants a little help from its friends to finance its gamble.
Pentagon policy chief James Miller and U.S.-NATO Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen told a House panel Tuesday the penultimate outcome there will be determined by the quality and number of Afghan forces--not the length of time American troops stay.
Miller and Allen repeatedly told a House committee that every tactical and strategic decision being made about the fight against the Taliban focuses not on U.S. and NATO forces but local troops. Washington and its allies are hurriedly building an Afghan National Security Force that will feature 352,000 troops. Allen said he is "satisfied" leaving an indigenous force of that size in charge on Jan. 1, 2015.
But Pennsylvania Democrat Mark Critz brought up the elephants in the room: How much will a force that large cost, and how can the Afghanistan economy afford it? On the latter point, Afghanistan's gross domestic product for last year was around $17 billion, according to World Bank and CIA World Fact Book data.
Miller shifted in his seat, and told the House Armed Services Committee that sustaining the Afghanistan security force surely will cost "more than $4 billion."
NATO, which technically is in charge of the U.S.-led mission there, has put the cost much higher.
"A long-term solution also needed to be found for shouldering the cost of sustaining the ANSF, a cost currently estimated at some $8 billion ... or 50 [percent] of the estimated Afghan GDP," states a NATO white paper.
The final annual price tag will depend on the exact size, Miller said, something that "will come down" over time.
Still, the officials made clear Washington is pressing its allies to pay up.
"The international community has expressed a desire to support the ANSF over time," Allen said.
Miller acknowledged the Obama administration is trying to get "the international community" to help fund Afghanistan's forces.
That likely will be a major challenge, given the American and European fiscal crises. Obama administration officials are expected to press U.S. allies to commit during several upcoming international forums, such as a May NATO leaders' conference in Chicago.
The Government Accountability Office has concluded that the U.S. spent more than $72 billion on "security, governance, and development" alone in Afghanistan from 2002-2011. More broadly, the U.S. and other international donors funded 90 percent of Afghanistan's government expenditures from 2006-2010.
The unresolved questions about how to pay for a 352,000-troop Afghan security corps underscore worries in Washington about, as Critz put it, whether "the central government [is] able to hold it all together."
To that end, "some in the international community worry that Afghanistan lacks the political and economic support to sustain the size and costs of the ANSF," according to the Center for American Progress. "Some Afghan officials are concerned about the lack of a clear strategic plan that integrates the efforts to build the ANSF with broader attempts to strengthen other Afghan institutions and help Afghanistan create a self-sustaining political economy."