Gates: U.S. Must Consider Sustainability of Afghan Forces

WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2011 — The Defense Depart­ment has request­ed enough mon­ey to put the Afghan nation­al secu­ri­ty forces in a good posi­tion to defend their own coun­try, but the cur­rent lev­el of fund­ing for the effort is not sus­tain­able in view of bud­getary and oth­er con­cerns, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here today.

Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee to tes­ti­fy about the department’s fis­cal 2012 bud­get request.

The bud­get request includes $107 bil­lion for con­tin­u­ing oper­a­tions in Afghanistan, down from $113 bil­lion in the fis­cal 2011 bud­get. Of the $107 bil­lion, $12.8 bil­lion is request­ed to grow, train, and equip Afghanistan’s army and its nation­al police force.

The fund­ing would grow the Afghan forces by 70,000 mem­bers to reach a total of about 378,000 mem­bers, Gates and Mullen said. Plans are on track to have 305,000 Afghan forces by the end of this year, they added.

“We’ve all rec­og­nized from the begin­ning that being able to turn secu­ri­ty over to the Afghan forces against a degrad­ed Tal­iban is our tick­et out of Afghanistan,” Gates told the com­mit­tee. “And the way to accom­plish our goal is to make sure we are not attacked out of there again.”

While remov­ing U.S. troops by 2014 would result in sub­stan­tial bud­get sav­ings, Gates said, defense lead­ers are grap­pling with how much it will cost to sus­tain Afghan forces and for how long.

“How big a secu­ri­ty force can we afford?” he asked. “Let’s not kid our­selves. We are the only ones pay­ing for this in any sig­nif­i­cant way. How long can we sus­tain it?” Afghanistan will not be able to sus­tain near­ly the amount of forces it has now, Gates said.

“The Afghan abil­i­ty to sus­tain a force would be a frac­tion of what they already have,” he said. “I think of it more in terms of a surge like ours, so that once we have defeat­ed the Tal­iban or degrad­ed them to a point, then a small­er Afghan force can take con­trol.”

Army Lt. Gen. William B. Cald­well IV, who com­mands NATO Train­ing Mis­sion Afghanistan, has done a remark­able job build­ing up the Afghan forces, improv­ing lit­er­a­cy, and train­ing, Gates and Mullen said. The chair­man not­ed that 24,000 Afghan recruits are in train­ing now.

“That num­ber was in the hun­dreds a year or two ago,” Gates said. “Before, you just recruit­ed and put the sol­dier or police in the field.”

The tran­si­tion of secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty to Afghan forces is slat­ed to begin in July and to be com­plete by 2014. Asked about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the Unit­ed States con­tin­u­ing long-term sup­port by hav­ing joint air bases with the Afghans beyond that tran­si­tion, Gates replied that such an arrange­ment would be “absolute­ly ben­e­fi­cial.”

“There is a big ques­tion in the whole region whether we will stick around,” he said. “A secu­ri­ty agree­ment with the Afghans that pro­vides for a con­tin­u­ing rela­tion­ship and some kind of joint facil­i­ties for train­ing and coun­tert­er­ror­ism beyond 2014 would be very much in our inter­est.” It also would help to sta­bi­lize the region, he added.

A pos­i­tive sign for Afghanistan, Gates said, is that defense min­is­ters of coun­tries that take part in the 50-mem­ber coali­tion of coun­tries in Afghan are more sup­port­ive than ever. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many min­is­ters so opti­mistic about Afghanistan,” he said, recall­ing a defense min­is­ters meet­ing he attend­ed in Decem­ber. “I didn’t encounter a sin­gle one who was pes­simistic … or thought we were not head­ed in the right direc­tion.”

Gates added that he will attend anoth­er defense min­is­ters meet­ing in March, where he will “ensure that what­ev­er we do in July does not start a rush to the exits among our allies.” The sec­re­tary not­ed that many coun­tries have few mil­i­tary troops in Afghanistan, but con­tribute in oth­er ways, includ­ing pro­vid­ing finan­cial sup­port to the effort. For exam­ple, he said, Japan pays the salaries of all Afghan nation­al police offi­cers.

On Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s deci­sion to announce a draw­down in Afghanistan when the tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty begins, Gates and Mullen acknowl­edged it was one of the hard­est deci­sions about the war, but added that it was one they sup­port.

Though he opposed announc­ing a draw­down timetable in Iraq, Gates said, those were dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances.

“The Iraqis want us out of their coun­try as soon as pos­si­ble,” he said. “A cer­tain num­ber of Afghans would like us to stay for­ev­er.”

Announc­ing a con­di­tions-based time­line for a U.S. draw­down in Afghanistan let the Afghan gov­ern­ment know it was time to gear up. “It seemed to me we need­ed to do some­thing to grab the atten­tion of the Afghan lead­er­ship and bring a sense of urgency to get them to step up to the plate and take own­er­ship of the war and get their young men to fight,” Gates said. “The Afghans have, in fact, done this in the past year to a sig­nif­i­cant degree.”

The Tal­iban shouldn’t inter­pret the draw­down announce­ment as mean­ing all U.S. troops are leav­ing Afghanistan in the sum­mer, the sec­re­tary said.

If they do, the Tal­iban will “be in for a rude awak­en­ing come Sep­tem­ber and Octo­ber,” Gates said.

Pak­istan con­tin­ues to be a con­cern, Gates and Mullen said, and is an exam­ple of why Con­gress should ful­ly fund the Glob­al Secu­ri­ty Con­tin­gency Fund shared by the Defense and State depart­ments to pre­pare for emerg­ing threats or unfore­seen prob­lems. The DOD bud­get requests $50 mil­lion for the fund, with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of appro­pri­at­ing $450 mil­lion, if need­ed. “It buys us an agile and cost-effec­tive way to bud­get for unfore­seen needs, and it lets our part­ners secure their own regions,” Mullen explained.

The chair­man has called the grow­ing U.S. debt the country’s great­est nation­al secu­ri­ty threat. He reit­er­at­ed the point today, but added that while prac­tic­ing fis­cal restraint, “we must get real­is­tic about the world we live in.”

Mullen said he is opti­mistic about Pakistan’s mil­i­tary, but told the com­mit­tee that “on the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic side, it looks worse than it has in a long time.” The sec­re­tary agreed with the chair­man.

“I wor­ry a lot about Pak­istan,” Gates said. “It has huge eco­nom­ic prob­lems.” He also not­ed that Pak­istan has ter­ror­ist safe havens and that the Unit­ed States “is very unpop­u­lar” there.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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