WASHINGTON — The U.S. government’s financial commitment to Afghanistan is likely to linger and reach into the billions long after it pulls combat troops from the country, newly disclosed spending estimates show.
The United States expects to spend about $6 billion a year training and supporting Afghan troops and police after it begins withdrawing its own combat troops in 2011.
The estimates of U.S. spending through 2015, detailed in a NATO training mission document, are an acknowledgment that Afghanistan will remain largely dependent on the United States for its security.
That reality could become problematic for the Obama administration as it continues to seek money for Afghanistan from Congress in a time of increasingly tight budgets.
In Brussels, a NATO official said Monday that alliance commander Gen. David Petraeus had asked for 2,000 more soldiers, with nearly half to be trainers for the rapidly expanding Afghan security forces. The NATO official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.
The training mission document outlines large-scale infrastructure projects, including a military hospital and military and police academies, aimed at “establishing enduring institutions” and “creating irreversible momentum.”
Spending for training is projected to taper off from $11.6 billion next year to an average of $6.2 billion over the following four years. Much of the reduction reflects reduced spending on infrastructure.
The Obama administration recently announced that it intends to ramp up the total Afghan army and police force from nearly 250,000 today to more than 300,000 by late next year. The mission will be largely paid for by the United States, with smaller contributions from NATO allies. The projected multibillion-dollar cost of maintaining those forces would be inconceivable for Afghanistan’s small economy without foreign aid.
One of the arguments against dramatically increasing the size of Afghan security forces, even during George W. Bush’s administration, was that the Afghan government would be unable to pay for them for the foreseeable future. The NATO document shows that the U.S. will end up footing most of the bill.
The Obama administration has boosted the training mission in preparation for next year’s drawdown. The United States spent over $20 billion on training between 2003 and 2009 and expects to spend about the same this year and next alone.
The head of the NATO training mission, U.S. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell, said bolstering Afghanistan’s security forces is cost-efficient.
“It will always be more expensive to have a coalition force doing something than an Afghan counterpart,” Caldwell said in a written response to questions from The Associated Press.
Caldwell said he is sensitive to the concern that the United States is creating dependence and is looking for ways of cutting costs.
“This dependency is something that we think about all the time,” he said. “We know the sooner the Afghan systems are up and running the sooner coalition forces can transition responsibilities to the sovereign government.”
Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said it will be difficult to wean the Afghan security forces quickly.
“We really do have a long way to go before this winds down,” he said.
Caldwell has said he aims to have Afghan security forces at sufficient numbers to begin a U.S. withdrawal by October 2011. The mission has had to deal with illiteracy, corruption and desertion among Afghan forces.
With much skepticism in Congress, the levels of financing outlined in the document are not guaranteed. While the roughly $6 billion annual cost would not be an enormous line in the defense budget, the administration is facing pressure to shrink the federal deficit.
Even Caldwell has predicted that desertion and injury rates are so high among Afghan forces that NATO will have to recruit and train 141,000 people to ensure it has the 56,000 additional personnel needed next fall.
As money for infrastructure tapers off, most of the projected spending is to retain forces by paying salaries, food and housing.