It Weighs Sixteen Hundred Tons

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak spoke at a forum last month organized by the Center for a New American Security. He wanted sustained American support for the Afghan National Army, which, he noted, was growing its end-strength ahead of schedule. "We will reach 86,000 by March 21," Wardak said, a milemarker along the way to a goal of "134,000, two years ahead of schedule, [by] 2013." Wardak declined to predict when his plus-sized army would be ready to independently secure the population.

The Obama administration, according to the New York Times, is going to give Wardak more than what he said he wanted — a force ultimately sized at 400,000 soldiers. Building, training and equipping a competent army of that size is an enormous task. For perspective, the active-duty U.S. Army is presently around 514,000 soldiers. Understandably, the Times reports there’s some sticker shock:

[E]ven members of Mr. Obama’s national security team appeared taken aback by the cost projections of the program, which range from $10 billion to $20 billion over the next six or seven years.

By comparison, the annual budget for the entire Afghan government, which is largely provided by the United States and other international donors, is about $1.1 billion, which means the annual price of the program would be about twice the cost of operating the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The takeaway from that shouldn’t simply be that the program is expensive. It should be that the security challenges in Afghanistan are so immense that a massive Afghan army is necessary. In the absence of an army like that, there are two alternatives: send way more American and NATO troops than in the recent plus-up; or begin a withdrawal — and if you withdraw without competent indiginous security forces, you’re inviting a vaccuum to be filled by the insurgency. The Times quotes Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as saying "The cost is relatively small compared to the cost of not doing it — of having Afghanistan either disintegrate, or fall into the hands of the Taliban, or look as though we are dominating it."

What the Times doesn’t report — probably because the Obama administration doesn’t know — is how long it’ll take to go from 86,000 troops to 400,000. If it’ll take until 2011 (and supposed to take until 2013) to get to 134,000, is it safe to assume that five more years is a conservative estimate to reach the new goal? Indeed, a question worth asking is whether there’s a danger in trying to train too many troops too quickly, since the experience in Iraq with the training mission should have instructed the U.S. in the folly of throwing people into uniform with a few weeks of training and calling them an army. For all the talk about the length of the Iraq war, which enters its seventh year today, the Obama administration has evidently decided that the Afghanistan war will grind on for much longer.

Crossposted to The Streak.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman