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US asks: How big an Afghan army can we afford?
* Proposal would increase Afghan forces up to 378,000
* Gates plays down likelihood of support from NATO allies
By Phil Stewart and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's government is unsure whether the United States can afford a further buildup of Afghan security forces, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.
The United States is struggling to balance mounting fiscal concerns at home with the need to stand up a capable Afghan fighting force that would be able to take over more security responsibilities as foreign troops withdraw.
Gates, discussing the nearly 10-year-old war before a Senate committee, pointed to the $12.8 billion called for in Obama's fiscal year 2012 budget to pay for training of Afghan security forces and said "you cannot do that indefinitely."
"The issue is under discussion in no small part because of the question of sustainability. How big an army can we afford?" Gates asked.
"Because let's not kid ourselves, nobody else is contributing to this in any significant way," he added, appearing to dismiss hopes of any big increase in contributions from NATO allies.
The plan under consideration would boost troop levels in the Afghan national forces to somewhere between 352,000 and 378,000, compared with this year's goal of 305,000, said Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer.
Gates suggested one option might be increasing Afghan forces past the 305,000 figure and then gradually shrinking it once the security situation allows.
Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a proponent of the plan, noted it would be less expensive to train and equip Afghans than keep U.S. troops there -- an assertion Gates and Mullen strongly agreed with.
"We are still very much in discussion inside the administration on where this comes out," said Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "In the near future, we will have that (answer)."
The debate underscores the ballooning price of recruiting, equipping and training Afghan forces who are fighting a tenacious Taliban insurgency.
Obama, who ordered a surge of 30,000 extra U.S. soldiers in December 2009, has vowed to begin drawing down troops in mid-2011 with the goal of passing lead security responsibility to Afghans by the end of 2014.
But there are concerns Afghan forces -- afflicted with high attrition, poor marksmanship, illiteracy and drug abuse -- will not be ready to assume greater responsibility.
The United States has repeatedly said the U.S. role in Afghanistan will continue past 2014. Gates told the Senate committee he would favor joint facilities in Afghanistan to allow for training and counterterrorism operations.
"I think that it would serve as a barrier to Iranian influence coming from the West. I think it would serve as a barrier to a reconstitution of the Taliban and others coming from the border areas in Pakistan," he said, adding it would have a stabilizing effect in the region. (Editing by John O'Callaghan and Vicki Allen)
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