Costly coalition plan to recruit thousands more Afghan forces draws concerns

Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the U.S., Afghan and NATO military effort in Afghanistan.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 17, 2011; 8:59 PM

KABUL - A U.S.-backed plan to hire an additional 73,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers has raised concern among diplomats in Kabul about the quality of recruits and the sustainability of an increasingly costly security apparatus financed almost entirely by international donors.

The plan represents a 24 percent increase over an initial American goal. It would cost the United States an additional $6 billion next year, roughly twice as much as previously planned, and could saddle the United States and other countries with heftier Afghan security costs for years, if not decades, to come.

The U.S. and its NATO allies had been racing to build up an Afghan army and police force capable of fighting a counterinsurgency war and protecting President Hamid Karzai's government. They are on track to meet the initial U.S. goal of roughly 305,000 security forces by October.

But after November's NATO conference in Lisbon, the Afghan government and the coalition training command proposed a new target: having as many as 378,000 forces by October 2012. The goal, according to a senior U.S. military official in Kabul, emerged as part of a concept developed at the conference - "irreversible transition."

The new phrase, now heard all over Kabul, was coined to emphasize the U.S. goal to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans over the next four years in a way that guarantees that the Taliban will not prevail and that U.S. forces will not be dragged back into the fight.

"That's a new twist - it's no longer, 'Hey, have enough coalition and Afghan security forces based upon the security situation.' It's also, 'Make sure you set the conditions for irreversible transition,'" the U.S. military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the dispute.

"There are other capabilities they need that don't reside in the [305,000-member] force."

Money from outside Afghanistan covers the bulk of the country's security costs. As the war enters its 10th year, the Afghan government is years away from being able to make payroll and pay for essentials such as weapons, vehicles, fuel and uniforms. Karzai has said the country's security forces will rely on outside help until at least 2020.

The Obama administration is expected to request roughly $12.8 billion for 2012 for the buildup and maintenance of Afghan security forces. That is about twice as much as would have been needed without the projected manpower increase. Congress gave the training command $11.6 billion this year, a record sum that surpassed the largest yearly aid package that Iraqi security forces received after the 2007 U.S. troop surge.

In order to submit the request in time for U.S. lawmakers to approve it, and to start preparing for the new troops, the NATO training command in Kabul is seeking a consensus from the international community before the end of the month.

The Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, a body led by the United Nations and the Afghan government that includes representatives from NATO countries, sets targets for Afghan security forces. Because the board is not convening this month, its security committee is expected to approve the decision at its meeting Tuesday.

Some diplomats in Kabul said they worry that the process for such an enormously important decision is being rushed.

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