* 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 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?"
"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
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)