The Fine Print

Gauging the price tag for Afghanistan's security

Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the military effort in Afghanistan.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 7:14 PM

As the United States begins to look closely at reducing future spending, it may be time to put a dollar figure on President Obama's commitment, restated last week, to the long-term security of Afghanistan.

Let's start with the cost of maintaining Afghan security forces after they reach their planned goal by October - 171,000 in the military and 134,000 police. John Ferrari, deputy commander for programs for the NATO training mission in Afghanistan told reporters last week that the estimate is that $6 billion per year would be needed to sustain that overall force.

According to the latest figures published by the CIA, the Afghan government takes in revenues of $1 billion a year and has expenditures of $3.3 billion. Today, that deficit is made up through contributions by other nations. But that figure does not include the costs of Afghanistan's military and police units. As Farrari put it, "We procure all of their equipment. We sustain them. We pay for a lot of their training."

This year, for example, the United States is spending $9.2 billion on Afghan security forces and the administration has requested another $11.6 billion for the coming year, funds now tied up in Congress. About a third of that is for equipment - "about 80,000 vehicles, 175,000 radios and technical equipment, about 400,000 weapons and 146 different aircraft," according to Farrari. All of that is expected to cost some $10 billion by the time the full force is outfitted, he added.

But the question remains, who will pay the $6 billion a year in the future? As of now, there is no Afghan security sustainment fund. "How the international community decides to help the government of Afghanistan to fund that needs to be determined in the future," Ferrari said.

Some say compared with today, $6 billion could be a bargain should the Afghans be able to take over their own security by 2014. As Ferrari noted, the United States is now spending about $8 billion a month to maintain 98,000 American troops in Afghanistan, while the rest of the 30,000 to 40,000 coalition forces cost several billion dollars a month. "So the $6 billion per year is a very good return...on your investment for 300,000 Afghan security forces," Farrari said.

Of course, the cost keeps going up. Just one year ago, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed out that Afghanistan's national budget could not support what he then said was $2 billion needed for the country's army and police force, which at that time was projected at a smaller size than it is today.

Last week, Farrari said, "If the president of the United States and the international community in coordination with the government of Afghanistan decide to grow to something larger than 305,000, then yes," there will be additional costs.

A year ago, Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and military expert at the Brookings Institution predicted,"We are looking at two decades of supplying a few billion a year to Afghanistan." He added, "It's a reasonable guess that for 20 years, we essentially will have to fund half the Afghan budget...We are creating a [long-term military aid] situation similar to the ones we have with Israel, Egypt and Jordan."

One thing different in Afghanistan is the presence of a major American facility - Bagram Air Field. The facility continues to grow even as the president emphasizes his goal of reducing the level of U.S. troops beginning in July. A year ago, some 20,000 American military and civilian personnel were housed there, along with major Air Force units and coalition partners.

Just last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put out a "presolicitation notice" for a contractor to build the eighth of nine planned increments for troop housing "to replace expeditionary housing facilities" for 1,520 personnel. According to the notice, building the proposed facility could cost from $25 million to $100 million. The contract will not be awarded before March.

What's interesting is that the facility is expected to take a year to build, meaning it would not be completed before April 2012. That's less than two years before the 2014 date when Afghans are expected to take over security, with the U.S. presence reduced to training units.

But is that the real plan? Back in 2008, a supplemental funding bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars contained $62 million for an ammunition storage facility at Bagram, where 12 planned "igloos" were to support Army and Air Force needs. In requesting that money from Congress, the Army wrote, "As a forward operating site, Bagram must be able to provide for a long term, steady state presence which is able to surge to meet theater contingency requirements." A year earlier, Adm. William J. Fallon, then commander of U.S. Central Command, described Bagram to Congress as "the centerpiece for the CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia."

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