Afghan soldiers participate in training with French troops from NATO.… (Pascal Guyot, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — The Pentagon is planning to slash U.S. assistance to Afghanistan's army and police by more than half over the next three years, settling for a no-frills Afghan security force to battle the Taliban-led insurgency after American forces pull out.
Training and equipping Afghans to take over security has been key to the Obama administration strategy to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014. But the White House increasingly views high spending on the beleaguered Afghan military as unsustainable and has pressured the Pentagon for steeper cuts than previously planned.
The new approach, including reduced spending on such equipment as air conditioning and car radios, would provide for a "good enough" Afghan force to combat an entrenched insurgency that has survived nearly a decade of U.S.-led firepower, White House officials privately say.
"We realized we were starting to build an army based on Western army standards, and we realized they don't need that capability," said Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller, the deputy commander of the U.S.-led command in the capital that is assisting in recruiting, training and equipping Afghan forces.
The cutbacks, along with already planned reductions, would shrink annual U.S. expenditures on Afghan security forces from nearly $13 billion to well below $6 billion in 2014, the officials said. The Pentagon has spent more than $39 billion to build up the fledgling forces over the last six years.
The U.S. pays almost all the costs for Afghanistan's military and police and probably will continue to do so in the near future because the government in Kabul takes in only about $2 billion a year from taxes and other domestic revenue.
The Obama administration requested $12.8 billion from Congress this year after U.S. and Afghan officials decided to increase the national security force to 352,000 troops, up from 305,000. Internal Pentagon projections had called for spending levels to drop after 2014, as trucks, helicopters and other equipment now being purchased go into use. Finding billions in spending cuts will be difficult without scaling back plans to increase the size of the force, several officials said.
The push to cut expenses is the latest point of tension between the White House and some in the military over Afghan policy. The split emerged this year when President Obama ordered the withdrawal of 100,000 troops at a faster rate than commanders had recommended.
By all accounts, Obama appears more comfortable with a military strategy that relies heavily on drone aircraft strikes in neighboring Pakistan and nightly raids by special operations forces against Afghan militants, while trimming the American military presence and budget to politically acceptable levels.
Some in the military see the Afghanistan conflict, which began weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a test of U.S. resolve, while some in the administration view it as a military stalemate and are seeking a way to cut further losses. But even Defense Department officials who oppose deep spending cuts or troop withdrawals acknowledge that Congress is unlikely to indefinitely support current funding levels for Afghan troops.
"Everyone knows that funding levels have to come down, but if you go too far, you put at risk the entire strategy, which really rests on making [Afghan forces] competent enough … that they can assume the lead as we draw down," said a U.S. military official, who discussed the deliberations on condition of anonymity.
Douglas Ollivant, a former National Security Council aide under Obama and President George W. Bush, said the administration has recognized that "they've got to get to budget reality and that Afghanistan is unlikely to collapse before the 2012 election" even if spending is cut.
David Sedney, a top Pentagon official on Afghanistan, is in Kabul this week for talks on future funding of the army and police, officials said. How deep the cuts will go is still being discussed by U.S. and Afghan officials, but in internal deliberations administration aides have considered reducing aid below $4 billion a year, one official familiar with the discussions said.
Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who recently took over as top commander in Afghanistan, has embraced the effort to cut the training and equipment budget, and is urging North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in the war to step up their contributions, officials said. Those allies have pledged about $1.5 billion a year to the Afghan security forces, but only a fraction of those funds have been made available, U.S. officials said.
Cost-saving measures being considered include trimming the number of vehicles provided to Afghan police and giving them low-cost radios, Fuller said. And the Afghan army does not need mobile kitchens to feed soldiers in the field nor as many trucks with trailers, he added.