KABUL — NATO’s war planners call it the “iron mountain,” the $2.7 billion mass of military equipment that will be dropped on Afghanistan over the next eight months. But will the mountain be tall enough?
Between now and next March, the U.S.-led coalition will deliver 22,000 vehicles, including 514 new four-wheeled “mobile strike force” armored vehicles yet to be used in Afghanistan, 44 airplanes and helicopters, 40,000 weapons, and tens of thousands of radios and other pieces of communications gear. “It’s an enormous amount of equipment, vehicles and weapons,” said one U.S. military official.
Some Afghans, however, are looking at what the mountain’s missing, particularly fighter jets and tanks. Among them is Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who believes such sophisticated weaponry would intimidate the Taliban and keep neighbors Iran and Pakistan at bay.
Sentiment inside the palace seems to be shifting away from Wardak’s view. President Hamid Karzai and others say they are not interested in fielding an army and police force they cannot afford or sustain as American troops withdraw, according to U.S. and Afghan officials. With a faltering U.S. economy, American military officials have been rapidly downgrading estimates of how much they’ll have to spend on the Afghan security forces by 2014, the year the Afghan government is to assume control. Estimates that stood as high as $8 billion earlier have now fallen to $3 billion and below.
Ashraf Ghani, a top Karzai adviser, said recently that “in the next eight months, we are getting more equipment than we’ve gotten in the last eight years….and this time it’s not all discarded equipment, it’s brand new.”
Ghani did not say the equipment would silence Afghan officials demanding jets and tanks, but that it “will go a very long way to answer some of the issues.”
At a recent national security council meeting in the palace, NATO officials briefed Karzai about the state of the Afghan army. Karzai asked questions about new military training schools and programs to educate soldiers rather than what new weapons they’d be toting, according to officials familiar with the meeting. He stressed he eventually wanted a more affordable — which is to say, smaller — army, and one that would represent the nation’s ethnic groups.
U.S. military officials have definitively ruled out buying Afghans fighter jets. The Soviets gave Afghanistan more than 700 jets, but none of them is still flying. They all crashed or broke and couldn’t be repaired, according to U.S. military officials. At $7,000 an hour to fly a jet, in a country without trained pilots or a maintenance capacity, “we just couldn’t justify buying jets,” said Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO’s training mission.
Wardak, the defense minister, remains skeptical. He acknowledged the new armored vehicles — which can travel faster than 60 miles per hour — would increase the quick-reaction capabilities of the army. But he warned that only a strong military can deter Afghanistan’s neighbors.
“If Afghanistan is weak, it has always attracted unwanted interference by the others,” Wardak said in an interview. “History will repeat itself.”