At a recent NATO ministerial meeting in Belgium, the US put forward a proposal to cut the size of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). At the same time, the Afghan Minister for Defense, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, expressed grave concerns about the proposal.
Why is this proposal being made now? Should the US and NATO adopt it?
The US proposal
The ANSF, which consists of the Afghan army, air force, and police, is currently at about 300,000 troops. It is still in the process of growing, and will reach its end strength goal of 352,000 troops by September 2012. At that point, the plan is to stop the growth of the ANSF and to maintain its size at 352,000 troops. The new plan being proposed by the US calls for maintaining 352,000 troops only until the end of 2014, however, at which point the ANSF would start drawing down until the troop level is reduced to 220,000.
The driving force behind this proposed cut was discussed in a Long War Journal article last September. The issue is funding.
The US and NATO pay for the vast majority of ANSF expenses. The US, which is the largest donor by far, wants to reduce its costs. The projected cost for maintaining the ANSF at a level of 352,000 troops is about $6 billion per year. The US is seeking to reduce the cost by about one-third, to $4.1 billion per year; hence, the US and NATO are considering cutting the size of ANSF by about a third, from 352,000 to 220,000 troops.
How should the size of the ANSF be determined?
With regard to the optimal size of the Afghan Army, US and Afghan generals agree that the size of the ANSF should be determined by the military situation on the ground. The goal is to defeat the insurgency. Accordingly, the size of the ANSF should be determined by the military needs to achieve that goal.
It had previously been determined that the ANSF needed to grow to 352,000 troops. But last fall the Washington Post reported that US Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, Commander of NATO’s training mission, said: “There is just no need to keep a [352,000-man security force] if the insurgency level goes down” [emphasis added].
On the Afghan side, General Wardak has voiced concern that the insurgency level has not yet diminished. And it is unclear if, or by how much, it will go down by 2014. As reported in Fox News, the Afghan defense minister is concerned that cutting the size of the Afghan army at this point will leave the country vulnerable after NATO’s withdrawal in 2014:
“Nobody at this moment, based on any type of analysis, can predict what will be the security situation in 2014. That’s unpredictable,” Wardak said. “Going lower [in Afghan troop numbers] has to be based on realities on the ground. Otherwise it will be a disaster, it will be a catastrophe, putting at risk all that we have accomplished together with so much sacrifice in blood and treasure.”
Wardak makes an important point. There are huge uncertainties over the course events will take over the next three years. So far, the insurgency has not been defeated and is, in fact, still strong. Future developments in the insurgency are unpredictable. At the same time, NATO military strategy calls for increasing the responsibility of the ANSF, not decreasing it, while NATO forces will be drawing down. And the degree to which the ANSF will develop its capabilities to meet its new responsibilities is uncertain. Another important concern is the effect the demobilization of 132,000 Afghan soldiers, who will probably face a difficult economic environment after NATO’s withdrawal, will have on Afghanistan.
With this level of uncertainty, it seems unwise to decide today what the size of the ANSF should be after 2014. It would seem better to delay the decision until 2014. By then, many of these uncertainties will have been resolved, one way or another.
But, the US is proposing a plan today. Why? Because the plan is not being driven by military necessity but by economics. US Army Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger, the new commander of the NATO Training Mission (he succeeded Caldwell in November), said that the proposal for a smaller Afghan force costing approximately $4.1 billion a year reflects “our assessment of what the international community will provide and what the Afghans can provide for themselves,” Fox News reported.