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Afghanistan to ask NATO for bigger army of its own

At the NATO meeting in Romania Thursday, Afghan officials are expected to request money to expand its National Army from 86,000 to 120,000 troops.

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"My guess is that the Afghans are asking for the maximum of what they think they can get from us – which is probably around 120,000," says one American official. "They don't want to make a proposal and then get shot down."

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The original size of the Afghan Army was determined by a 2001 agreement in Bonn, Germany, to be about 70,000, a "sustainable" number that reflected a postwar environment that would not require as much security.

But a resurgent Taliban over the last year has made violent inroads, especially in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and there is now growing recognition that the size of the military needs to be rethought.

This January, a process known as the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, a committee of international members who oversee the Afghanistan Compact, also known as the London Compact, agreed to raise the size of the Army to 86,000. That board would have to meet again to increase the size of the Army again, American officials say.

As of March 25, there are 54,947 soldiers assigned to the Afghan National Army and another 8,900 soldiers undergoing training. The American military has spent more than $8.2 billion training Afghan soldiers since 2005.

Proponents of growing the Afghan Army include Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, who thinks the additional cost is worth it. "The fact is, the United States spends billions of dollars subsidizing the militaries of allies around the world, including many far less strategically important than Afghanistan," Senator Lieberman wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed last month.

"Afghan troops are fighting on the front lines against America's mortal enemies. Whatever the cost of ensuring that our Afghan allies have the numbers and means to prevail, the cost of their defeat by the Taliban would be infinitely greater."

Lieberman supports an Afghan Army of around 200,000, saying the NATO summit is "an opportune moment for the United States to commit to expanding its ranks, and in a big way."

In an interview last month, the Afghan ambassador to the US, Said Jawad, said he believes the Afghans can grow the Army over the next few years and said his country could consider the use of a draft to do it if need be. Whatever the cost, he said, Afghanistan must be made to be capable enough to fend for itself. "What we need to do is to look at the cost of not doing it."

Supporters of growing the Army point to the cost efficiencies of expansion, saying that about 60 Afghan soldiers can be trained for the cost of deploying one US soldier to Iraq.

The Afghan Army is widely seen as a success story, even if it still relies heavily on US forces to conduct operations. According to officials at NATO's International Security Assistance Force, which leads NATO's effort here, public confidence in its Army is high. Two recent polls, one taken by the Asia Foundation and another by the Environics firm, show Afghan support for their Army to be between 84 and 88 percent.