WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A proposal to quickly build up Afghanistan's military, key to a planned drawdown of U.S. troops, would cost the United States as much as an extra $2 billion a year, a U.S. congressional aide said.
Washington and its allies are struggling to balance mounting budget pressures at home with the need to stand up a capable local fighting force in Afghanistan that can take over more security responsibilities as foreign forces withdraw.
The plan, under consideration by Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials, would boost troop levels in the Afghan national forces to 378,000 by October 2012 -- from this year's goal of 305,000 -- a U.S. Senate aide who works on Afghanistan issues told Reuters in an interview this week.
The aide spoke on condition of anonymity.
The proposed increase is 17 percent more than the $11.6 billion requested by President Barack Obama for Afghan security training in the fiscal 2011 budget, but it is not likely to encounter big opposition in Congress.
It does, however, underscore the ballooning price of recruiting, equipping and training Afghan forces who are fighting a tenacious Taliban insurgency -- Washington has spent more than $29 billion since 2001 to help Kabul's forces.
Obama, who ordered a "surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. forces in December 2009, has vowed to begin drawing down troops in mid-2011. But there are concerns that Afghan forces will not be ready to assume greater responsibilities.
Last year was the deadliest for Western troops in Afghanistan since U.S.-backed forces ousted its Taliban government in 2001.
While NATO partners would share the cost of raising Afghan troop levels to 378,000 -- there are currently about 266,000 Afghans serving in its forces -- the United States likely would continue to pay for the lion's share of the training.
Afghan troops have suffered from high attrition, poor marksmanship and entrenched illiteracy and drug abuse.
U.S. Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has legislative oversight of the military, urged Obama this week to approve the build-up soon despite reservations in some quarters.
Levin said after a trip to Afghanistan that "this increase that has been proposed is on hold here in Washington and in NATO" despite support from General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
White House officials have said they were studying the plan but were concerned about the cost and quality of new Afghan forces. Levin suggested there were also worries about the size of the Afghan army in neighboring Pakistan.
Colonel John Ferrari, deputy commander for programs at the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, said Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials were in the midst of regular annual deliberations over future plans to build up local forces.
The decision may come in mid-February, he said, which is when Obama will submit a fiscal 2012 budget plan to Congress.
Ferrari said the cost of future security force training would depend on what sort of soldiers and police were desired.
"If they ask ... to thicken existing units, adding people to existing units, that's a bit cheaper," Ferrari said.
Another congressional aide, a Republican, said the White House may want to curtail spending where it can in Afghanistan as it worries about the long-term costs of underwriting Afghan forces.
After a deep recession, budget reduction is a priority as the United States careens toward a $14.3 trillion debt limit.
Although war funding has been mostly immune to such pressure in the United States, the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to try to cut civilian assistance for Afghanistan, which is a more vulnerable target.
The second aide said Republicans would seek to complete commanders' funding requests. He said the United States had a tendency to "become cheap at the end of conflicts and put in jeopardy our biggest strategic victories."
"We risk that if we don't' fully fund Afghan security forces," he said.