Can Afghanistan Support a Beefed Up Military?

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Spencer Platt / Getty

Members of the U.S. Army 1-6 Field Artillery division patrol in a small herding community in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Defense Secretary Robert Gates declines to bluff when he doesn't know the answer. When he was asked on Wednesday about the best strategy for the war in Afghanistan, he shrugged. "Unlike Iraq and some of the other problems, this is an area where I've been somewhat uncertain in my own mind what the right path forward is," he said with weapons-grade candor rarely heard from the Pentagon podium.

Gates did say he's sure of one thing: He doesn't want to keep boosting U.S. and allied troop numbers there. "I've been very concerned about an open-ended commitment of increasing numbers of troops for a variety of reasons," he said, "including the size of our footprint in Afghanistan and my worry that the Afghans come to see us as not their partners and allies but as part of their problem." (See pictures of Afghanistan's mean streets)

That's the reason the Obama Administration is considering doubling the size of Afghanistan's military and national police forces, to roughly 400,000. That's more than triple what U.S. officials had estimated would be needed to defend the country shortly after the U.S. invaded in late 2001. But the beefed up force is needed to battle surging enemies led by the Taliban — scattered by the U.S. in 2001, but who have since returned with a vengeance — and al-Qaeda. The current Afghan military comprises about 90,000 troops, slated to rise to 134,000, while there are 80,000 men in the national police.

On Tuesday, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta called on the international community to give the country the tools and training it needs to prevail. "Afghanistan is determined to take more responsibilities in the fight on terrorism," Spanta said in Kabul. "We hope that the international community does more to strengthen our police and army. We want them to send more police trainers, more army trainers and send us more equipment."

But there's a problem with the option of doubling the size of the Afghan security forces: Officials inside and out of the Pentagon warn that the bill for setting up such a large force, estimated at $2 billion to $3 billion annually for several years, could prove daunting — more than double the budget of the Afghan government, and way more than could be sustained by Afghanistan's own economy for the foreseeable future. Even U.S. trainers for these new forces are in short supply: the Government Accountability Office, in a report issued earlier this month, said the Pentagon is 1,500 personnel short of the number it needs to train Afghan national police.

So, while Gates may want to limit the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan, the math is working against him, at least in the short term. The additional 17,000 American troops slated to arrive there this year will boost the U.S. force there to about 55,000 troops, even as contingents from Canada and the Netherlands withdraw, giving Washington an even bigger stake in the fighting.

"Funding [an Afghan] force this size will be a major challenge — especially if it succeeds," says Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. While the West will pump in the billions needed to fund the force during wartime, they'll turn that spigot off as soon an uneasy peace emerges. "Yet, the Afghan government is very unlikely to be able to pay these costs itself even if we make optimistic assumptions about economic growth and government revenue extraction potential," Biddle says. "The result could easily be a postwar Afghan security force too large to pay and also too large to demobilize safely." Historically, he warns, that leads to trouble. "Situations like this can easily produce a coup d'etat or civil warfare," Biddle says. "Unless we're very careful about this, too large an increase in Afghan national-security forces could be successful in the mid-term, but become a self-defeating prophecy in the longer term."