It was recently reported that the US is looking for ways to trim the cost of funding the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). “The new frugality is a necessity, a message reiterated by congressional delegations that visited Afghanistan and reminded U.S. soldiers and diplomats about economic problems back home,” according to The Washington Post.
The ANSF currently consist 300,000 troops. The plan is to build the force up to 352,000 troops by October 2012, with the US funding the vast majority of the cost. While the ANSF is being developed, the cost is about $12 billion per year, but once the force is built, the cost to sustain the force will drop to about $6 billion per year. The US is now seeking ways to reduce its contribution once the ANSF reaches its full size in October 2012 to $2-3 billion per year. Is this effort simply “trimming the frills,” or is it penny-wise and pound-foolish? An analysis reveals that it is some of both.
The reality of ANSF funding
Afghanistan is a poor country. Afghanistan’s GDP is roughly $15 billion per year. The total government income is $3 billion per year, and only a portion of that would be available to fund the ANSF. Realistically, the Afghan government’s contribution cannot exceed $500 million per year, an amount that would sustain a force of only about 30,000 troops. In other words, Afghanistan does not have nearly the funds it needs to build or sustain a force of any substantial size on its own, now or at any time in the foreseeable future.
Accordingly, the ANSF will need substantial outside support. At present, the ANSF is funded almost entirely by US aid. The ANSF gets some money from the Afghan government, some from other NATO nations, and some from a dedicated Law and Order trust fund funded by Japan. But these contributions are small in comparison.
The reality of ANSF’s mission
At its current size of 300,000, the ANSF is still not capable of taking on the insurgency by itself. And there is little prospect that its mission will get easier in the near future. The US plans to reduce its own presence in Afghanistan from its current troop level of 100,000 to ~70,000 by September 2012, and to a substantially lower level by the end of 2014. Other ISAF partners are similarly withdrawing their forces. The ANSF will have to take over responsibility for areas where the US and other ISAF nations are pulling out.
In addition, the current operational plan calls for the ANSF to take on larger responsibilities. Starting later this year, major operations will shift from southern to eastern Afghanistan. Unlike operations in the south where US/ISAF took the lead in clearing operations and ANSF then moved in to hold the gains, the plan for the east is for the ANSF to take the lead in all operations. At the same time, there is no expectation that insurgent safe havens in Pakistan will be eliminated. Nor is there any plan that eliminates the insurgency in Kunar or Nuristan provinces or in northern Afghanistan by 2014. In summary, the burden on the ANSF is going to increase in the near future, and it will not decrease at any time in the foreseeable future.
Funding the ANSF
How realistic is it that US will be able to reduce its spending for the ANSF? Of the $6 billion per year needed to maintain ANSF after October 2012, the US is seeking to reduce its contribution to $2-3 billion annually. The four parts to the plan, described in the Post article, are discussed below.
The NATO contribution. Earlier this year, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates “asked that the rest of the NATO nations essentially triple their contribution, to about $1.4 billion a year,” according to The Washington Post article. It is reasonable for the US to try to get allies to increase their share of the costs; their current contribution is small. Based on past experience, it is likely they will contribute some additional money. But in an article that includes comments by Major General Peter Fuller, the deputy commander for NATO’s training programs, The Scotsman reported that “NATO and the Law and Order trust have collected less than half that they are supposed to.”
Since NATO has failed to meet its past commitments, it is unlikely to provide 100% of the amount requested.
Afghan government contribution. “NATO officials hope the Afghan government’s meager contribution will also increase,” the Post article states. The Afghan economy has been growing over the last 10 years, and it is also likely that Afghanistan will increase its defense spending. But because the Afghan economy is still so small, Afghanistan cannot reasonably be expected to fund any significant portion of its military now or at any time in the foreseeable future. This portion of the budget remains small.
Reducing the cost structure of the ANSF. “Removing air-conditioning from Afghan bases had already saved $100 million a year, instead of buying nine types of armoured vehicle they chose just three, to cut the costs of spares and training,” said General Fuller, as reported in The Scotsman article.
Similarly, although Afghan officials wanted Black Hawk helicopters, they bought Russian Mi-17’s because they perform better at high altitude and are cheaper and easier to maintain. C-27 transport planes were bought secondhand from the Italian Air Force. The 120mm artillery guns were bought in Bosnia, Slovakia, and Lithuania and refurbished.
The Post article said that General Fuller recommended several means of keeping ANSF costs down, such as “cutting salaries, limiting fuel or changing how often the security forces replace equipment and vehicles.”
It is a good idea to spend prudently; Afghanistan is a poor country that cannot afford first-world military expenses. Thus it is reasonable to look for ways of limiting the cost structure of the ANSF. In addition, spending on items that are not absolutely necessary invites corruption.
Reducing the size of the ANSF. “But ultimately, U.S. and Afghan officials said, the answer might lie in a decision to field a smaller Afghan army than planned,” the Post article concluded. And Lt. General William Caldwell, commander of NATO’s training mission, stated: “There is just no need to keep a 200,000-man army if the insurgency level goes down.”
This is where the plan is very unrealistic. As described above, the current operational plan does not anticipate that the level of insurgency will decline substantially over the next several years. Nor should there be any expectation that the level will diminish. At the same time, there is no plan to reduce the ANSF’s mission. On the contrary, the plan projects that the ANSF’s mission will increase substantially. If the current size of the ANSF (~300,000) is not sufficient today, it is unreasonable to expect that a force smaller than 352,000 will be sufficient in 2012-2014.
In a cost analysis, the savings of a smaller ANSF would be small. For example, the difference in cost between the currently planned 352,000-troop ANSF and an ANSF of half that size (176,000 troops) is on the order of $3 billion per year. To put this $3 billion cost in perspective, the US spends $100 billion per year to maintain 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan. It costs the US the same amount to sustain one US soldier in Afghanistan as it does to sustain 60 Afghan soldiers. The $3 billion saving equates to about 3,000 US troops. This is very small compared to any size force that the US would sustain in Afghanistan even after 2014. If the US is not contemplating withdrawing ALL its troops from Afghanistan, then the additional cost of supporting the ANSF at its full size is very small.
It is reasonable for the US to try to tap other sources of funding and to look for ways to reduce the cost of maintaining the ANSF. Although the US will probably not be 100% successful in this attempt, it can expect some results in these areas. Cutting the size of the ANSF, however, is neither a strategically sound decision nor one that will achieve any signifcant reduction in costs.