Even in a global financial crisis, the world cannot afford to skimp on its obligations to Afghanistan, which wants to double the size of its army but will never be able to pay for it, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates says.
Gates said some characterizations of backsliding in the seven-year-old Afghan war are too dire, but he said violence is up. Nations with fighting forces in Afghanistan and those without must respond, Gates said Friday after a day of strategy talks with British, Canadian and other defense ministers with troops fighting alongside Americans in Afghanistan's closely contested south.
The United States has asked Japan and NATO allies that have refused to send troops to Afghanistan to fund an estimated $17 billion doubling of the Afghan army to 134,000 soldiers over five years.
Gates has waged a nearly two-year campaign to recruit additional fighting forces from reluctant NATO allies, saying the military alliance would be weakened if some nations remained on the sidelines of the NATO fight in Afghanistan. He has seemed resigned, however, to accepting checks instead of troops from some European nations. The global financial crisis should not let donor nations off the hook, Gates said.
"They'll have to weigh the consequences of not doing it," Gates said.
It is vastly cheaper to train and equip and Afghan soldier to fight in his own country than to send an American or other foreigner in to do the same thing, Gates said.
"There may be a period when you've got to do both. You've got to have your own forces there, but in the long term your interests in getting out are served by making a contribution to expanding the Afghan army."
Speaking to reporters aboard his plane to Washington, Gates noted that unlike Iraq, Afghanistan will dependent on handouts for years. "Iraqi government revenues this year will be about $70 billion," Gates said. "Afghan government revenues will be about $700 million. They will never be able to sustain this force." At the defense meeting in Canada, Gates said he would like to send significant U.S. forces to the war in Afghanistan ahead of national elections scheduled for next year.
The additional forces would give greater security for fall elections in Afghanistan, Gates said, and he predicted that security conditions will "be under enough control to allow the elections to take place." Secure successful elections are probably the most important goal for Afghanistan next year, Gates said. President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's fragile US-backed leader, has said he intends to run again. Registration has begun but is spotty, and the Taliban is expected try to disrupt registration and voting.
The Bush administration has announced plans to send 3,500 additional Marines to Afghanistan before year's end and then the Army brigade of about 5,000 soldiers in January. Over the next 12-18 months, the United States hopes to add as many as three more combat brigades, plus resources such as planes and helicopters to support them.