An initial indication of the White House’s view on the costs occurred this month when the National Security Council rejected the military’s request to expand Afghanistan’s security forces by 73,000 personnel.
Concerned not just about the price of training but also the cost of maintaining the force — estimated at $6 billion to $8 billion a year, which far exceeds the resources of the Kabul government, whose annual budget is about $1.5 billion — the NSC authorized the addition of just 47,000 personnel. That would bring the total combined size of the Afghan army and national police force to 352,000.
“We’re building an army that they’ll never be able to pay for, which means we’re going to have to pay for it for years and years to come,” the first official said.
Military officials said reducing troop levels might not reduce costs proportionally because of the need to sustain bases and other infrastructure. Their intention is to “thin out” U.S. forces in many areas, not withdraw entirely, to facilitate an orderly transition to the Afghan government. “Pulling out more forces than prudent may not yield the cost savings everyone wants,” the senior military official said.
Although troop reductions will almost certainly begin in July — the month Obama promised to start a drawdown — military engineers and contractors continue to expand bases across southern Afghanistan.
At Camp Leatherneck, the main Marine outpost in Helmand province, workers recently finished building a second runway that can accommodate the Air Force’s largest cargo jet, even though some military officials deemed the existing runway sufficient. The base also has been outfitted with paved streets, complete with American-style signs.
Recent supplemental appropriations to fund the war, which have included billions of dollars for construction and equipment, “have been like crack” cocaine for the military, said one officer in southern Afghanistan.“We’ve become addicted to building.”
But moving too aggressively to control that spending could open the White House to criticism that it is depriving troops of necessary supplies and infrastructure. As a consequence, administration officials have concluded that the only practical way for them to bring down costs is by reducing troops.
“The head count is the only variable that we can control,” said a civilian official involved in war policy.