KABUL — America’s longest war is about to include more cash for Afghanistan’s army and police force — without any new conditions to try to ensure it doesn’t get gobbled up before making it to the battlefield.
At a NATO summit in Warsaw that begins July 8, the United States and its allies will try to raise $15 billion to fund Afghan security forces through 2020. About $10.5 billion of that is expected to come from the United States, a continuation of commitments to pay and clothe Afghan security forces while supplying them with fuel, weapons and ammunition to fight Taliban insurgents.
But even though billions of dollars have been wasted or stolen here over the past 15 years, NATO leaders will probably not link the money to new benchmarks or anti-corruption standards for the Afghan military, said Maj. Gen. Gordon “Skip” Davis Jr., commander of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, which oversees coalition support for Afghan security forces.
The U.S.-led coalition, for example, will still seek to fund 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police, even though auditors have repeatedly questioned whether Afghanistan has that many security personnel.
“There was discussion last year about having some specific benchmarks before the Warsaw summit, but I think the allies felt it was impractical,” said Davis, adding that it would have taken months to agree on what new strings should be placed on the money. “There just wasn’t enough time.”
Davis said NATO leaders have confidence in Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to safeguard the international community’s money. He also thinks that Afghan security forces can operate effectively under existing performance goals.
But the coming NATO summit is a reflection of increasingly hawkish political leaders in the United States and Europe as it relates to the war.
When NATO last met to consider Afghanistan funding in 2014, President Obama was still insisting that all but 1,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from the country by the end of this year. At the time, Congress also appeared to be growing frustrated with reports that vast sums had been lost or stolen under former Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
But Obama, who was elected in 2008 on a pledge that he would end the war, has since backtracked on his troop withdrawal plan, agreeing to keep 9,800 soldiers here this year.
NATO leaders will most likely recommend keeping 9,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan into next year, although it’s unclear how many of them will be American, Davis said.
Earlier this month, Obama gave troops more authority to take offensive action against the Taliban.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has also reinvigorated international support for Afghanistan, both in Congress and in European capitals.
“There is much more consensus that stemming extremism here, in the region, is a direct contribution to security in the homeland, be it in the U.S. or Europe,” Davis said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, American taxpayers have spent $68 billion to support Afghanistan’s army and police force. An additional $45 billion has been spent on direct humanitarian assistance, according to the special inspector general for Afghan Reconstruction.
But the total cost of the Afghan war is far greater than that, said Neta Crawford, a professor of political science at Boston University and co-director of the Cost of War Project.
Since 2001, Crawford estimates, the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department have spent a total of $783 billion on Afghanistan, factoring in the costs of deploying troops and diplomats. That figure balloons to $1.8 trillion if future interest on the national debt, veterans’ care and other long-term spending is considered, she estimates.
In an interview, Crawford said it was “absurdity” to keep “throwing resources” into the conflict. She noted that both Afghan civilian and military causalities are at record highs.
“It’s clear you cannot kill your way out of this conflict,” Crawford said. “And guess what — we don’t have the money for this.”
Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, chief spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said Afghan forces are making progress to justify the continued financial support.
After being repeatedly overrun by Taliban insurgents last year, Cleveland said, Afghan forces have become far more aggressive this year, so far avoiding embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield.
“Right now, they do have some momentum against the Taliban, and we are cautiously optimistic,” Cleveland said. “That is not to say everything is going to be fine in a month and there won’t be bad days . . . but overall, they have made an improvement.”
Coalition commanders expect that the Taliban will face even more pressure in coming months. Under the expanded authority recently approved by Obama, U.S. troops will now be able to work with conventional Afghan forces to call in coalition airstrikes against Taliban positions.
But Afghanistan will continue to provide just a fraction of those costs, despite past predictions that the country would eventually be moving closer to self-sustainment.
At a donor summit in 2012, NATO leaders agreed that Afghanistan would put up at least $500 million toward its security needs by 2015, “with the aim that it can assume, no later than 2024, full financial responsibility for its own security forces.” NATO reaffirmed that time frame at a summit two years ago.
But the Afghan government has yet to reach even the $500 million target, and coalition commanders now say they operate under no illusion that the international support for the Afghan military will be scaled back anytime soon.
Afghanistan currently pays about 10 percent — $430 million — of its annual security costs, Davis said.
According to the World Bank, Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is projected to grow by 1.9 percent this year, suggesting that it could take decades for it to afford its own security.
Yet international donors are far more comfortable working with Ghani than they were with Karzai.
Since taking office, Ghani has made tackling corruption a key priority, one reason NATO is unlikely to seek additional concessions in exchange for the new funding, Davis said.
In September, Ghani issued a document pledging “self-reliance though mutual accountability,” calling for governance, anti-corruption and human rights reforms within the military. He also recently launched an anti-corruption council, Davis noted.
But John F. Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, has noted that neither Afghan nor coalition leaders have been able to verify how many soldiers and police officers make up Afghan security forces.
Earlier this year, an Associated Press investigation found that official Afghan army enlistment numbers probably include thousands of “ghost soldiers” who do not regularly report for duty or who have retired, defected to the Taliban or been killed.
Systems currently being implemented will link soldiers’ paychecks to biometrically-certified cash cards, Davis said.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said NATO leaders “face a conundrum” because “they realize they need to keep money going to Afghanistan” but understand that “the war is not popular at home.”
“Most Americans, and people in other countries, don’t want billions going to Afghanistan,” he said.
Even Brig. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, chief spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, was uncertain about what the long-term strategy is for ending the war.
Asked whether he thought the Afghan military could ever be self-sufficient, Waziri said that question is better asked in Washington.
“Afghanistan has rich minerals and natural resources that we can exploit and will be able to use when the war against terrorism stops,” Waziri said. “But only [the United States] can answer that question” on timing.