Afghanistan security for less? How low can NATO go?

As NATO leaders convene for the weekend summit in Chicago, one pressing issue is whether, and how much, the post-NATO-withdrawal Afghan security forces can be pared down to save money.

Sabine Siebold/REUTERS
A German soldier (C), accompanied by an Afghan translator in a German uniform, talks to an inhabitant of the village Arab Sher Ali in northern Chahar Darrah in this April 24 file photo.

Can Afghanistan administer an ethnically diverse and geographically challenging country, hold off an insurgency, and prevent Al Qaeda from taking up residence again, all with fewer than a quarter million security personnel?

That is one of the key questions that NATO leaders will take up at their two-day summit in Chicago beginning Sunday. After spending billions of dollars and providing years of training to create a national security force of army and police that numbers about 350,000, NATO and partner countries will mull a proposal to whittle that down to about 230,000 by 2015, when NATO’s combat role will have officially ceased.

Driving the proposal to reduce Afghan security forces by about a third is economic reality, not necessarily conditions on the ground. The 230,000 number is only one of several options proposed by NATO commanders in Afghanistan based on different security scenarios, but it is the one that seems to be winning growing favor in NATO capitals.

The United States, which is likely to chip in for around half of the annual cost of keeping the security forces going, is tired enough of paying out, judging by attitudes in Congress and recent public opinion polls. European countries seem even less inclined to keep the funding going.

“You trade off risks [in cutting back on forces] against cost,” says James Dobbins, a former US envoy to Afghanistan who now directs security studies at the RAND Corp. The annual cost of keeping a force of 350,000 going was pegged at $6.5 billion, while the cost of maintaining the smaller 230,000-strong force is estimated at $4.1 billion – a $2 billion-plus annual savings.

Those numbers assume that Afghanistan on its own could only afford to field about 30,000 security personnel – clearly a woefully inadequate number.

Ambassador Dobbins cautions that the lower figure being contemplated for Afghan security forces would most likely not be reached right off in 2015, but would be achieved gradually over subsequent years – when no one knows what the security conditions in Afghanistan will be.

Dobbins adds that much of the reduction is likely to be realized through natural attrition – desertion rates have come down but remain relatively high – and not by suddenly dismissing tens of thousands of soldiers and police.

With continuing training by NATO and partner countries, he adds, a smaller but more efficient and better-trained security force should be able to make up for some of the reduction in size.

But other defense experts say that, even considering the qualitative progress the army and police have made already, the 230,000 figure could be cutting things dangerously close to the bone.

Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, notes that Iraq, a country with roughly the same population as Afghanistan, maintains army and police forces of about 670,000. And Afghanistan today actually has more than 400,000 security personnel on the ground, between Afghan and NATO forces, he adds.

The proposal for considerably smaller Afghan army and police forces assumes that the insurgency threat will have been further reduced by the time NATO combat forces leave. But, O’Hanlon asks, what if that’s not the case?

That question is what leads some Afghanistan experts to say that the US and NATO must focus on reaching a political settlement – among Afghanistan’s warring elements and with the support of neighboring countries – to reduce the need for the larger number of security forces.

“Whether or not this lower figure [for Afghan security forces] is adequate depends a lot on the drivers of the conflict, and that’s the political side,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “In my view, the 230,000 is a number arrived at by assuming the political challenges are addressed.”

Those challenges include revitalizing political reforms, addressing corruption convincingly in the eyes of average Afghan citizens, and pursuing reconciliation with the Taliban, Mr. Katulis says.

Where reconciliation may stand two years from now when NATO withdraws its last combat troops, no one can say. But as NATO leaders gather to discuss Afghanistan’s long-term security needs, the reality is that nascent US-Taliban talks are suspended and showing scant sign of reviving any time soon.

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