This week, NATO Cabinet ministers, including U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, will try to tackle the problem of Afghan security. The basic plan for bringing American troops home from Afghanistan is to let Afghan security forces fight for their own country. But there's a hitch — finding a way to pay for the Afghan army.
Right now, the Afghan national security forces are growing, and will surpass 350,000 troops and police later this year. For the West, that's the idea — once those troops are well trained, Western forces can leave. But someone will have to pay the multibillion-dollar cost of keeping those Afghan forces in arms.
"How long do you project that we Americans are going to have to bear most of the cost of paying for the Afghan security forces?" Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, asked top Pentagon officials at a recent hearing. "Are we talking about 10 years, or 20 years?"
James Miller, acting undersecretary for defense, basically shrugged. He admitted it would be a long time before Afghanistan can afford to pay that bill. And over the next couple of years, the budget shortfall will grow — because the Western commitment to pay for the bigger Afghan security force is already beginning to shrink. Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that over the next year alone, the U.S. share drops by nearly half.
"What that really tells you is we don't have a plan," Cordesman says. "We have a set of goals, and they're being dictated as much by budget pressures and the knowledge we're leaving as anything else."
Like Cordesman, many politicians in the U.S. and Afghanistan are worried the declining financial commitment means Afghan forces could face an impossible task after 2014 — that's a critical year, because it's when Western nations plan to hand over security to Afghanistan.
At a news conference in Kabul last week, NATO leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in effect, that NATO would keep Afghanistan safe for the long term.
"The whole international community committed itself to help finance the Afghan security forces also beyond 2014," Cordesman says.
There's one way to bridge the gap between promises to keep Afghanistan secure and the desire to cut expenses: The U.S. needs other NATO countries to help pick up more of the tab.
"About $1.3 billion of that they would like to see coming from foreign donors, and then another $500 million coming from the Afghan government," says Nora Bensahel with the Center for a New American Security, explaining U.S. spending goals.
But like diners facing a big dinner bill, the U.S. and NATO are waiting to see who grabs the check first. The U.S. would like to see all of this ironed out before the next big NATO meeting in Chicago in May. But Cordesman says there's no sign other countries will step up.
"Because they haven't been spending it when this war had a far higher priority in U.S. eyes, and far more public support than it has today," Cordesman says.
With Europe facing economic turmoil, and public support for the war on the decline in the U.S., there's no political gain to being first in line to pay for Afghan defense. The U.S. is simply hoping that the costs of security will get cheaper. Bensahel says the U.S. figures the Afghan army can shrink after 2014.
"The administration has explicitly said that it can plan to bring down those numbers, and therefore pay less money, because it assumes there's reconciliation with the Taliban by that point," Bensahel says.
If there's no peace settlement and a big Afghan fighting force is still needed, expenses will remain high. With so much still unknown about the future of Afghanistan, it's no wonder NATO seems to be deferring decisions about funding until later.