NATO may keep Afghan security at highest level into 2018 for stability
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BRUSSELS -- NATO defense ministers are considering a new proposal to sustain Afghanistan's security forces at 352,000 troops through 2018, senior alliance officials said Thursday. The expensive effort is viewed as a way to help guarantee the country's stability -- and, just as much, to illustrate continued foreign support after the NATO allies end their combat mission in Afghanistan next year.
The fiscal package that NATO leaders endorsed last spring would have reduced the Afghan National Security Forces to fewer than 240,000 troops after December 2014, when the NATO mission expires. That reduction was based on planning work indicating that the larger current force level was too expensive for Afghanistan and the allies to keep up, and might not be required. Some specialists even argued that the foreign money pouring into Afghanistan to support so large a force was helping fuel rampant official corruption.
Recruiting, training, equipping and operating Afghanistan's army and national police forces at their present level will cost about $6.5 billion for the current U.S. fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Afghanistan pays $500 million of that total, its international partners add $300 million, and the United States provides the remaining $5.7 billion.
Senior NATO officials said Thursday that the allies were examining a new assistance package to Afghanistan that would last at least five years and keep the security forces at the higher troop level.
The alliance is "strongly considering" the proposal, said one senior NATO official, although many of its provisions are not yet settled, including how the cost would be shared.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joined his counterparts Thursday at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels to open a two-day conference, their first since President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that the United States would draw down its forces in Afghanistan by 34,000 troops within a year.
NATO officials acknowledged that the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan were pointing to the approaching end of the coalition combat mission as proof the United States and its allies were abandoning Afghanistan, repeating a cycle of intervention and withdrawal. Alliance officials worry that ordinary Afghan citizens, and even some Afghan leaders, could adopt that view.
So NATO is discussing expanded financial aid and the continued presence of a small contingent of U.S. and allied troops after 2014 as concrete proof of continued foreign support for Afghanistan, officials said.
"The will and the endurance and the commitment of the coalition equals the confidence and hope on the part of the Afghans," one NATO official said. "There is a post-2014 mission. There is a train-advise-and-assist mission. And we are going to use that as an insurance policy, to ensure that the success we've had over the past 12 years will continue."
NATO forces are trying to diminish the insurgents' ability to depict foreign forces as invaders and occupiers as they hand off security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
NATO officials say that even with the new withdrawal timeline set by Mr. Obama, the bulk of U.S. forces now in Afghanistan will stay there through the summer fighting season and then withdraw in late autumn and early winter.
"The commanders on the ground believe they have the flexibility to do this mission and absorb the drawdown," one NATO official said.
First Published February 22, 2013 12:00 am