Officials: NATO strongly considering plan to maintain Afghan force of 352,000 through 2018

NATO is strongly considering a proposal to continue funding an Afghan security force of 352,000 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 endorsed 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 cost 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.

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.

Other NATO nations are also evaluating their commitments to the war, and officials are meeting to encourage allies to participate in the effort to continue to train and advise the Afghan forces after 2014.

According to one of the NATO officials, uncertainty about the future is a critical worry in Afghanistan. Many still believe the U.S. will abandon the country when the combat is over while others believe Taliban assertions that the coalition troops will stay as an occupying force. In the coming months, the official said, it will be important to show the Afghans that NATO allies will continue to support the country after 2014, while also proving that the local forces will be in charge of security for their own nation.

Such intangible issues, the official said, present a greater problem at this point than some of the other more obvious challenges, such as improving the quality of the Afghan forces, battling the Taliban and getting the U.S. troops and equipment out by the end of 2014.

The official said Afghan troops worry that if the size of the force is cut, they will be out of a job after 2014. As a result, they may not concentrate on building better military units and instead focus on how they will care for their families or get money when the tap runs dry.