Don't Undercut the Afghan Army

By Vance Serchuk
Friday, June 2, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Four years ago this spring the United States began building an Afghan National Army, which has since emerged as arguably the least ambiguous success story of the postwar reconstruction here. While military power in Afghanistan was once synonymous with partisan, warlord-run militias, the new army is a multiethnic, battle-hardened and increasingly professional force -- tangible proof of how nation-building can work in even the unlikeliest of places.

Unfortunately, this accomplishment is under threat, not just from a resurgent Taliban but from the Bush administration itself, which is keen to trim its contributions to the Afghan army. Against Kabul's objections, the U.S. military hopes to cut the planned end-strength of the Afghan defense sector by more than 25 percent; rather than building the 70,000-man force previously agreed upon, the goal is now 50,000.

The Pentagon defends this downsizing with rhetoric about "sustainability." As one of the world's poorest countries, Afghanistan needs an army it can afford, commanders here argue, and a 70,000-man force is simply too expensive.

The problem with this is that Afghanistan has struggled throughout its history to generate the resources needed for its security, and the Pentagon's proposed cuts do little to resolve this. In fact, the U.S. military's own number crunchers predict the Afghans won't be able to pay for even a 50,000-man force until 2063. And that's under a best-case scenario -- assuming robust, unbroken economic growth for the next 50 years, and that the equipment we are buying the Afghans today doesn't wear out in the interim. (The World Bank's less rosy estimates put affordability somewhere in the early 26th century!)

But if talk about affordability is rooted in futuristic fantasy, the U.S. military's emphasis on it has a host of pernicious, real-world consequences in the here and now. For starters, it infuriates our allies in Kabul, who argue, rightly, that 70,000 is already a minuscule force given the size of their country and the manpower-intensive nature of counterinsurgency.

U.S. military commanders here acknowledge that a smaller army will mean that Kabul must accept a higher degree of "risk," but they defend their approach, citing current intelligence about the size of the Taliban and other potential threats.

But this intelligence assumes that Afghanistan's security situation is relatively static; it fails to take into account the probability of strategic surprise. With Pakistan to the south, Iran to the west, and Russia and China in Central Asia, who can say with any confidence what Afghanistan's neighborhood will look like in four or five years? Even inside the country, U.S. predictions about the insurgency have boomeranged over the past 18 months, from confident predictions of an imminent Taliban collapse to confident predictions of a long, hard slog.

What makes the Pentagon's approach all the more shortsighted is the genuine desire of many Afghans -- this week's rioting notwithstanding -- for a strong, long-term alliance with Washington. To the extent the Pentagon goes cheap on the Afghan army now, it will not only alienate our friends but also constrain their ability to stand with us in the future. Kabul's solidarity in a confrontation with Tehran, for example, will be affected by whether it has enough troops to defend its western border with Iran and at the same time hold the line against the Taliban in the south. A smaller army will make this much harder.

Given how little sense it makes, what is driving the Pentagon's new fixation on affordability? Part of the explanation lies with a shift in authority over the United States' Afghan policy. A year ago, the power was squarely in Kabul, in the hands of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who were both committed to a strategic partnership.

With their departure, authority has now shifted to the U.S. Central Command and the Pentagon, which have decidedly different priorities. Asked about the guidance they receive from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on building the Afghan army, officers here often cite the same three questions: Why is it taking so long, why do you need so many people, and when can we leave?

It's hard to imagine a worse trifecta. Rather than viewing the Afghan army as a short-term, stopgap expenditure that should go away over time, the Bush administration needs to start treating military assistance to Kabul as a guaranteed, stable commitment -- much like U.S. aid to front-line states during the Cold War.

At some point, one hopes, Afghanistan will be able to shoulder more of its own defense costs. For now, though, the emphasis shouldn't be on the army Afghanistan can afford but on the one it needs: a force that can defeat the Taliban and become a long-term partner in the war on terrorism.

The writer is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company