LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Here's the basic plan for bringing American troops home from Afghanistan: Build up Afghan security forces so they can defend their own country. But there's this hitch: how to pay for the Afghan Army. This week in Brussels, NATO Cabinet ministers, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, will try to tackle that problem. NPR's Larry Abramson has this report.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: 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, most western forces can leave. But someone will have to pay the multi-billion dollar cost of keeping those Afghan forces in arms. Republican Senator Susan Collins asked top Pentagon officials about this at a recent hearing.
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: How long do you project that we Americans are going to have to bear most of the costs of paying for the Afghan security forces? Are we talking about 10 years or 20 years?
ABRAMSON: Acting Pentagon Undersecretary James Miller basically shrugged. He admitted it will 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 this bigger Afghan security force is already beginning to shrink. Anthony Cordesman, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says, over the next year alone the U.S. share drops by nearly half.
ANTHONY CORDESMAN: And what that really tells you is we don't have a plan. 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.
ABRAMSON: 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.
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 pick up more of the tab. Nora Bensahel with the Center for a New American Security, says the U.S. wants to divide up costs like this.
DR. NORA BENSAHEL: That 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.
ABRAMSON: 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 this ironed out before the next big NATO meeting in Chicago in May. But Anthony Cordesman says there's no sign other countries will step up.
CORDESMAN: 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.
ABRAMSON: With Europe facing economic turmoil and public support for the war on the decline here 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. Nora Bensahel says the U.S. figures the Afghan army can shrink after 2014.
BENSAHEL: The administration has explicitly said that it can plan to bring down those numbers, and therefore pay less money, because it assumes that there's reconciliation with the Taliban by that point.
CORDESMAN: If there's no peace settlement and a big Afghan fighting force is still needed, expenses will remain high. With so much unknown about the future of Afghanistan, it's no wonder NATO seems to be saying, let's think about the money tomorrow.
ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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