Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has written extensively on the Afghan war.
It may be fair to argue that the last thing the nation needs at the start of an election year is yet another budget crisis and another decade of war. Yet this is the path the United States appears to be taking in Afghanistan. U.S. officials are talking about removing all American troops from Afghanistan and about massive cuts in military spending as part of the “transition” to Afghan control of combat and civil governance operations in 2014. Given the lead times involved in funding and implementing such massive changes within two to three years, Washington really has only a few months in which to decide whether we will take on the burden of funding the Afghan government through 2014 and beyond, and whether we will provide most of the funds, advisers and partners that Afghan forces will need until 2020 and beyond.
There has been near silence about these issues from the Obama administration and every Republican presidential candidate. Yet working studies from the U.S. and British governments, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank show that the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan could plunge that country into a recession or depression by the end of 2014 unless Kabul receives a massive new aid package. Afghanistan would need major assistance to compensate for the phaseout of U.S. and allied military spending that has kept its economy alive during the past 10 years of war, to pay for the services its government must provide to win and retain the loyalty of its people, to pay for the military and security forces it must develop, and to sustain the government until the Taliban and other insurgents are defeated or accept a political settlement.
The Afghan government raised this need in a paper circulated at the international conference in Bonn, Germany, last month, but its call for aid got little attention in the international media or among U.S. politicians. President Hamid Karzai requested some $10 billion a year through 2025 for a program that set ambitious goals for security and development. He called for equally ambitious reforms and improvements in governance and for the Afghan government to achieve full independence by 2030.
The Afghan government paper tracked closely with World Bank studies showing just how critical such aid will be, given that U.S. and allied forces are due to leave in 24 to 36 months and that an Afghan presidential election is to be held in 2014.
The Karzai government estimated that the cost of continued spending on development and governance would equal 14 percent of the Afghan economy in 2015 and that at least 9 percent of its gross domestic product would have to come from foreign aid. The government further estimated that the cost of security would amount to 26 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product — costs driven by the 357,000 men in the Afghan forces we are seeking to create.
The money the Afghan government estimates it will need to pay for the required military and civil spending in its budget equals about half of the Afghan economy in 2015. That figure rises to 62 percent if the development spending needed in addition to other spending in the budget is considered. This is far more than the $10 billion a year in the Afghan aid request. And the Karzai government is all too correct in warning in its paper that “Substantial funding cuts in any of these areas undermine our ability to achieve our shared goal of a secure, sustainable Afghanistan.”
The question for the United States and its allies — particularly the American people, who would have to pay 80 percent or more of the necessary aid — is whether they are willing to make a $140 billion commitment in assistance to cover the period through at least 2025. In addition, will they provide U.S. and allied forces to fight on through 2014 and then provide the thousands of military advisers and partners — some of whom will have to go into combat? Afghanistan will need such military support for more than a decade after 2014 — unless Pakistan puts an end to insurgent sanctuaries within its borders and/or the insurgents accept a political settlement that is less than victory. Without such continued spending and military aid, the war in Afghanistan is certain to be lost. And given the track records of the Pakistan government and the poor and corrupt quality of Afghan governance, it may be lost in any case.
Now is the time to debate these issues and the future level of the U.S. commitment in money and forces. We do not need more good intentions and vague promises from the Obama administration. We do not need a vacuous set of positions from Republican presidential candidates who either do not understand the issues or fear addressing their cost. If the United States is to make this commitment we need to start making it now in every part of our posture and spending in Afghanistan — and be clear that we will do so through 2025. If not, we need to be honest about the consequences for some 30 million Afghans and their country.