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Obama seeks expansion of Afghan security forces

Officials say plan would promote stability in country

By Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt
New York Times / March 19, 2009
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WASHINGTON - President Obama and his advisers have decided to significantly expand Afghanistan's security forces in the hope that a much larger professional army and national police force could fill a void left by the central government and do more to promote stability in the country, according to senior administration and Pentagon officials.

A plan awaiting final approval by the president would set a goal of about 400,000 troops and national police officers, more than twice the forces' current size, and more than three times the size that American officials believed would be adequate for Afghanistan in 2002, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda appeared to have been routed.

The officials said Obama was expected to approve a version of the plan in coming days as part of a broader Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. But even members of Obama's national security team appeared taken aback by the cost projections of the program, which range from $10 billion to $20 billion over the next six or seven years.

By comparison, the annual budget for the entire Afghan government, which is largely provided by the United States and other international donors, is about $1.1 billion, which means the annual price of the program would be about twice the cost of operating the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Administration officials also express concerns that an expanded Afghan Army could rival the corruption-plagued presidency of Karzai. The American commanders who have recommended the increase argued that any risk of creating a more powerful Afghan Army was outweighed by the greater risks posed by insurgent violence that could threaten the central government.

At present, the army fields more than 90,000 troops, and the Afghan National Police numbers about 80,000 officers. The relatively small size of the security forces has frustrated Afghan officials and American commanders who wanted to turn security over to legitimate Afghan security forces, and not local warlords, at a faster pace.

After resisting the idea for several years, the Bush administration last summer approved an increase that authorized the army to grow to 134,000 over the next three years, in a program that would cost about $12 billion. The resistance had been a holdover from the early months after the rout of Taliban and Qaeda fighters in 2001, when it appeared that there was little domestic or external threat that required a larger security force.

The officials who described the proposal spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to discuss it publicly in advance of final approval by Obama.

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