NATO may keep Afghan forces at peak strength longer
By Phil Stewart and Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO officials are strongly considering a proposal to keep Afghan forces at their peak strength of 352,000 until at least 2018, as opposed to current plans to cut the force by a third after 2015, alliance officials said on Thursday.
Backers say the proposal, disclosed to a small group of reporters during NATO talks in Brussels, would send a crucial signal of enduring support for Afghanistan and bolster Afghan confidence after the United States and its allies declare their long, unpopular war in the country over at the end of 2014.
But it could also cost allies billions of dollars more at a time when budget pressures are already squeezing defense spending and forcing Western nations to make tough choices about military priorities.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, asked about the proposal, stressed that no final decisions had been made. But he also argued that paying for the larger force was possible and preferable to fielding foreign forces.
"I feel confident that we will be able to finance Afghan security forces of that size," he told a news conference.
The United States this year is providing $5.7 billion of the $6.5 billion cost to field the Afghan forces, which are nearly at peak strength. Other NATO members are providing $300 million and the Afghans are paying for $500 million of that total.
In recent months, top U.S. and NATO commanders have expressed growing confidence about the ability of Afghan forces to take the lead successfully in all operations starting this Spring and to take full responsibility for security at the end of 2014, despite a still resilient insurgency.
But U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the U.S. military's Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, have strongly backed the idea of keeping the Afghan forces at peak strength longer. Continued...