NATO mulls paying for Afghan forces after 2014

February 3, 2012 - 9:25 AM
Belgium NATO Defense Ministers

United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, right, speaks with German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere during a round table meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday, Feb. 3, 2012. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta won't dispute a report that he believes Israel may attack Iran this spring in an attempt to set back the Islamic republic's nuclear program. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO's top official said Friday that the alliance expects regional powers to contribute to a multibillion dollar fund to finance the Afghan army and police after they assume full responsibility for the war in 2014.

Since Afghanistan — one of the world's poorest nations — cannot foot the estimated $6 billion (euro4.6 billion) annual bill, NATO nations will have to pay the bulk of it. But austerity measures and budgetary cuts caused by the financial crisis in the United States and Europe are making it difficult to raise the money within the alliance.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was appealing to the entire international community to help finance the force.

Asked whether he was specifically referring to China, India and Russia, he replied: "It's a call on the whole of the international community to contribute to financing the Afghan security forces because I think it is also in the interest of countries in the region to see a stable and secure Afghanistan."

"So my call on the international community also includes countries in the region," he said.

Fogh Rasmussen said defense ministers had also discussed the "sustainable size" of the future Afghan army and police, but that a final decision will be left to the NATO summit in Chicago next May.

The two-day meeting in Brussels of ministers from NATO's 28 nations and 22 other countries taking part in the war in Afghanistan is meant to pave the way for the Chicago summit.

The Afghan army and police are scheduled to grow to more than 350,000 members by 2014. But some have projected that the force can be safely reduced in order to reduce its costs.

"A reasonable number would be 230,000," French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said after the meeting.

The Taliban insurgents are estimated to have about 20,000 armed men.

A related unresolved question that also will be taken up in Chicago is the number of U.S. and other foreign troops that might remain behind and what missions they would be assigned.

The debate on the costs of the Afghan security forces came after NATO allies agreed broadly on Thursday to step back from the lead combat role in Afghanistan and let local forces take their place as early as next year, a shortened timetable that startled officials and members of the U.S. Congress.

Longuet said Paris would start drawing down its 3,600-strong contingent in March, and expects the withdrawal to be completed by mid-2013.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta caused a stir when he said that he foresaw American and NATO forces switching from a combat role to a support role by mid- to late-2013. He said this was a natural transition in line with the NATO goal, announced in November 2010, of having every Afghan province placed in government control by the end of 2014.

Until that remark, however, it was widely assumed that NATO forces would remain in the lead until the end of 2014, when most foreign forces are scheduled to be withdrawn.

His remark prompted some Republicans in Washington to complain that the Obama administration was unwisely telegraphing its intentions to the Taliban.

Fogh Rasmussen also announced that NATO would purchase five long-range reconnaissance drones for the alliance's new Ground Surveillance System.

Although the alliance has been planning the purchase for more than a decade, it was only after the recent air war over Libya that the matter received serious consideration. During that conflict, NATO air forces had to depend almost entirely on U.S. drones and surveillance aircraft for targeting information.

A group of 13 nations will purchase the Northrop Grumman drones known as the Global Hawk, which can stay aloft for 24 hours, and NATO will then maintain and operate them on behalf of all 28 allies.

"This will give our commanders the ability to see what is happening on the ground at long range and over periods of time — around the clock, and in any weather," Fogh Rasmussen said.

The NATO announcement came just days after Pentagon officials said budget cuts will force an end to purchases of the Global Hawks for the U.S. Air Force in favor of retaining the less expensive, high-altitude U-2 spy plane.

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Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich