BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO is strongly considering a proposal to continue funding a security force of 352,000 Afghan troops through 2018, as part of an effort to maintain security and help convince Afghanistan that America and its allies will not abandon it once combat troops leave in 2014, senior alliance officials said Thursday.
Such a change, if NATO endorses it, could increase the costs to the U.S. and allies by more than $2 billion a year, at a time when most are struggling with budget cuts and fiscal woes. Last May, NATO agreed to underwrite an Afghan force of about 230,000, at a cost of about $4.1 billion a year after 2014. It costs about $6.5 billion this year to fund the current Afghan force of 352,000, and the U.S. is providing about $5.7 billion of that.
Maintaining the larger troop strength could bolster the confidence of the Afghan forces and make it clear that NATO is committed to an enduring relationship with Afghanistan, a senior NATO official said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plan publicly.
Asked about the plan, NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen confirmed to reporters that it was under consideration.
"I feel confident that we will be able to finance Afghan security forces of that size," he said.
He added that Afghans can't afford a security force of 352,000, so the funding would be the responsibility of the whole international community.
"From the economic point of view, it is actually less expensive to finance Afghan Security Forces than to deploy foreign troops," he said.
That argument, however, may be a harder sell in the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers are deadlocked over how to solve the budget crisis that is set to trigger furloughs for 800,000 federal workers in the Pentagon alone, along with $85 billion in broad, automatic spending cuts across the government.
NATO defense ministers, including outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, are meeting here and discussing progress in the Afghan war and the ongoing drawdown of troops. President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he will withdraw 34,000 American troops from Afghanistan by this time next year. There are about 66,000 there now.