Even as President Obama weighs Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s troop request, another resource question awaits resolution with the administration’s new Afghanistan strategy. In his assessment report, Gen. McChrystal recommended nearly doubling the projected end strength of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) — a plan that the administration at one point reportedly favored, and one which has support from key members of Congress. If, as many have suggested, the development of the ANSF is the key to U.S. forces’ eventual departure from Afghanistan, it’s critical that the Afghan military is properly sized and resourced. Yet it remains to be seen just how the administration will proceed on the issue.
Prior to the release of the Obama administration’s original “Af-Pak” strategy, it was widely expected that the new approach would call for a dramatic expansion in the planned size of the ANSF. In a New York Times story on March 18, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt reported:
“President Obama and his advisers have decided to significantly expand Afghanistan’s security forces in the hope that a much larger professional army and national police force could fill a void left by the central government and do more to promote stability in the country, according to senior administration and Pentagon officials.
A plan awaiting final approval by the president would set a goal of about 400,000 troops and national police officers, more than twice the forces’ current size, and more than three times the size that American officials believed would be adequate for Afghanistan in 2002, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda appeared to have been routed.”
The 400,000 target was significant; it reflected a serious commitment to a strategy that purportedly hinged on partnering with Afghan forces and eventually transferring responsibility for the country’s security to them. It also represented a significant increase from the Bush administration’s goal of building a 134,000-strong force, which had been announced in September 2008.
And yet on March 27, when the president outlined his new strategy, he announced the following:
“We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011 — and increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward.”
At a press conference later that day, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy clarified the president’s comments while responding to a question about the Afghan government’s ability to financially sustain an expanded ANA:
“[R]ight now the first step is to focus on accelerating that growth while maintaining quality to the established targets for both the army and the police by 2011. At that point we’ll need to assess whether that growth is adequate or whether they need to be expanded further, and that determination will be made down the road. Part of that determination will be the question of sustainability, and that will obviously depend on the state of the Afghan economy, the willingness of the international community to continue to support and so forth. So that is a question to be determined in the future.”
From this, one could surmise that the planned combined end strength of 216,000 is a step toward an eventual, as-yet unstated goal of 400,000 — the pursuit of which will be contingent on a number of factors: the security situation in Afghanistan, the ability of the Afghan government to fund the army, and the financial support of the international community. (It’s worth noting that in their March story, Shanker and Schmitt had reported that “members of Mr. Obama’s national security team appeared taken aback by the cost projections of the program…”)
The Afghan government, however, has been clear about the size of the military it needs. According to CFR staff writer Greg Bruno, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak had expected a figure closer to 400,000 in the president’s March strategy, and said that the number announced by the administration “was a big surprise.” In a July interview with Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghan ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad explained further:
“We appreciate the fact that this number has been increased to 134,000. However, using any military formula, we need an army of 250,000 in Afghanistan, especially as long as the current security threat continues and our region remains volatile, the best solution to stability in Afghanistan and the region is to increase the Afghan army to 250,000 and the police force to 150,000….In the past we were hearing (about) the sustainability and economic cost of troops. But now everybody understands that this would be the most cost-effective way of ensuring stability in Afghanistan, because the alternative is a large formation of international troops, which is economically costly and politically challenging.”
In August, as pressure from American legislators to expand the ANSF mounted, CNAS president and DOD Defense Policy Board member John Nagl told Bloomberg News that “the national security community, broadly speaking, recognizes the importance of a much larger Afghan Army,” but “[t]he administration has not yet decided to pursue that path.”
Then came Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment, in which he suggested that “the Afghan National Army (ANA) must accelerate growth to the present target strength of 134,000 by Fall 2010, with the institutional flexibility to continue that growth to a new target ceiling of 240,000. The target strength of the Afghan National Police (ANP) must be raised to 160,000.” There’s that 400,000 again.
So the question remains, particularly in light of the ongoing strategic reassessment: where does the administration stand now on projected ANSF end strength? The initial signals from the White House in March indicated a potential willingness to reexamine the question of ANSF sizing at some point down the road, which, though indicative of the administration’s preference for strategic “incrementalism,” is mildly encouraging given the circumstances. The steps to expand the ANSF must be taken in short order, however, if they are to have a decisive effect within a reasonable period of time. And if ANSF development is critical to the administration’s exit strategy from Afghanistan, then the force needs to be sized at least to the modest standards outlined by Afghanistan’s own government — which happen to coincide with the recommendations of our commander on the ground.
Finally, those within the administration with reservations about the cost of such an endeavor should take advantage of our NATO allies’ enthusiasm to support the training effort, financially and otherwise, as demonstrated at the recent ministerial meeting is Bratislava. Such instances of alliance consensus are rare, and the Obama administration would be unwise to let it go to waste.
Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.