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.
"There is some skepticism about all of this. Why is it that we need this?" said one Western diplomat in Kabul. "Will it force all the focus on new recruits, rather than raising the quality?"
Afghan security forces, particularly the police, have been hobbled by corruption, illiteracy, desertions and abuse of civilians that have boosted the Taliban's standing by antagonizing the population.
"Policing is ineffective until you have rule of law, " said Jukka Savolainen, the head of the European Union Police Training Mission in Afghanistan, which works closely with the NATO training command. "You need courts where you can have a fair trial and a fair and functional corrections system."
The E.U. police mission has 450 international law enforcement experts training Afghans. Its mandate expires in 2013. Whether it is renewed will depend on the political climate in European capitals, where the Afghan war is increasingly unpopular.
"A longer-lasting commitment would be beneficial, but we are parliamentary democracies, and we cannot give indefinite commitments," Savolainen said. "The insurgents do not have those problems. They can say they will continue to resist until 2020."
In recent months, the NATO training command began developing acquisition mechanisms within the defense and interior ministries, among the first steps toward preparing Afghanistan for financial sovereignty.
Unlike Iraq, which began shouldering a growing share of its security costs after the 2007 U.S. troop surge, Afghanistan is not expected to be able to assume responsibility for a significant share of its security costs as foreign troops draw down.
"In Iraq, we were mentoring the Iraqis to do it," said Col. John Ferrari, the top procurement adviser to the Afghan security ministries. "We always fell back on, ' You have money - you figure it out.' We were able to incentivize them to spend their own money. We're hobbled here in Afghanistan because they don't have a lot of money."
The Afghan government spends almost half of its yearly $1 billion revenue on security costs - but its $450 million for security is a small fraction of the total cost. U.S. taxpayers pick up the lion's share of the bills. Last year, the United States spent $9.2 billion on training and equipment and sustenance. Other countries have contributed billions more through a United Nations-run trust fund.
Which nations will bear the costs in the future, and for how long, are questions that have gone largely unaddressed amid debates over when to begin drawing down U.S. troops and how to transfer more security responsibility to the Afghans.
One of the goals of the NATO training command is to improve military leadership by boosting the ranks of non-commissioned officers and funneling more cadets through the military academy.
The Western diplomat said France and Germany are particularly hesitant about the new target because it would require more foreign trainers - a group already in short supply. Another diplomat said that U.S. military officials have presented a "compelling case" for the new troops, and that European countries ultimately will support the request.
"There were some concerns, but there was no drama. There is no real apprehension among the stakeholders," the diplomat said. "But the question is, what is next after the transition? Could the Afghans sustain that substantially increased force?"
The new troops would round out the Afghan security forces with more military intelligence units, engineers, logisticians and other specialists, according to U.S. military officials.
Through war games and modeling, coalition officials landed on a low-end estimate of 352,000 Afghan security forces needed by October 2012. If the Afghans meet goals to curb high desertion rates among soldiers and police, the foreign donors would agree to raise the total to 378,000, U.S. officials said.
"We actually could cut police training from six weeks to three and train twice as many, but we didn't do that," the senior U.S. military official said. "That's the range that gets you both quantity and quality."
By late summer, the army and police must begin recruiting if they are to aim for these higher targets, so "we're only about seven months out from having to hire people," the military official said.
"People say, 'Why now?' Because it takes a long time to buy the equipment, get the trainers, do all the things you need to do to field the force."