By Gopal Ratnam
U.S. officials are warning Afghan leaders that after 2018 the Pentagon can’t keep paying as much to support their army as it now does.
The U.S. spends about $4.7 billion a year to underwrite Afghan forces, more than twice the $2.3 billion it promised as part of a pledge by NATO. The U.S. plans to stop providing as much as half the extra money two years after the last American troops come home, a U.S. military official told reporters at this week’s meeting of the alliance in Brussels.
The added funds have helped Afghanistan build an Army and police force that’s 325,000 strong to fend off the Taliban, compared with the smaller force of 228,500 that the 28-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization approved in 2012.
The Afghan government must decide whether to scale back its forces after U.S. and allied troops depart, get rid of unneeded equipment to cut costs, solicit money from countries other than the U.S. or reduce endemic corruption to raise more of its own revenue, according to the military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.
President Barack Obama said last month that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be reduced to 9,800 by the end of this year, half that in 2015 and only a small security assistance force at the U.S. Embassy by the end of 2016, as he prepares to leave office. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met June 4 in Brussels with his counterparts from the NATO alliance to discuss their contributions to Afghanistan starting next year.
Afghan officials remember their country’s experience in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in the 1990s, said Jonathan Schroden, director at the Center for Naval Analysis & Solutions in Arlington, Virginia. Afghan forces dwindled, and the Taliban took over the government.
Afghan leaders have to maintain cohesion within the armed forces and make sure that “guys doing the fighting get paid,” Schroden, the lead author of a January report that studied the Afghan National Security Forces, said in an interview. “One of the reasons the security forces collapsed in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal was when Moscow decided to stop paying the military.”
Cracking down on corruption would yield more government revenue from border tariffs that could be used to help pay for the armed forces, Schroden said.
Reducing the size of the Afghan forces may not be an option because they may be fighting a stronger Taliban after the departure of the international coalition, Schroden and other authors wrote in a report to Congress in January.
“In 2016–2018, once the insurgency has had time to recover from the last several years of U.S. and NATO operations, a larger and more intense military effort will become increasingly likely,” the report found. A negotiated political settlement between elected Afghan officials and the Taliban is “much more likely in the 2019–2023 timeframe,” the authors wrote.
The Afghan force should be maintained at about 344,300 troops for 2015 to 2018, the authors recommended.
Afghans will be forced to look to the rest of the world for financial support because their own economy may not be able to generate enough income to pay for the military, a U.S. diplomat told reporters in Brussels.
Afghanistan already has started reaching out, striking bilateral strategic agreements with India, China, Russia, France, Italy and others, the U.S. military official said, saying the Afghans must make more such efforts.
The U.S. has spent almost $93 billion from the fall of the Taliban through September 2013 to provide military and economic assistance to Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service. Of that, more than $56 billion has gone to equip and train Afghan forces, the research service said in a May 29 report.
For this year, Congress approved about $6.1 billion, including the $4.7 billion for the Afghan forces, the research service said.
The Pentagon is seeking $600 million to $800 million a year in bridge funds for 2016 and 2017 to continue paying the difference between what NATO provides and what the larger Afghan force needs, the U.S. military official said.
The U.S. separately funds the Afghan Local Police, a lightly armed paramilitary force of about 30,000 troops engaged in counterinsurgency operations, at a cost of about $100 million a year.
When donor nations met in Chicago in 2012, they agreed to reduce the Afghan force level gradually to 228,500, starting in 2015 and to pay for it through 2018 at an annual cost of $4.1 billion.
The U.S. pledged $2.3 billion yearly; the Afghan government pledged $500 million a year; and contributions by allies accounted for the remaining $1.3 billion a year, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Afghan contribution was to rise steadily until 2024, when Afghanistan is expected to fully fund its own security needs.
That decision was later reversed, and the alliance decided to keep the Afghan force at 352,000 through 2017 without resolving how to pay for it.
As a result, the U.S. in 2014 will pay its $2.3 billion share of the pledge, plus $800 million for the larger Afghan force, as well as $500 million that Afghanistan was supposed to contribute but can’t, as well as about $1.1 billion to buy equipment for the Afghans.
Once the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is reduced to 9,800 troops, coalition forces may bring the total international presence to 12,000, according to U.S. officials.
The coalition forces will be positioned in a hub-and-spoke formation, with U.S. forces stationed as hubs around Kandahar and Jalalabad in the south and east, the U.S. military official and diplomat said.
Other nations will act as spokes, with Turkey positioning its troops in Kabul, while Italian troops will be based in the west around Herat, and Germans will be in the north around Mazar-e-Sharif, the officials said.
Once the U.S. reduces its force to about 4,900 at the start of 2016, the allies will have to figure out how they operate in their locations, the U.S. diplomat said.