By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
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.