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White House, NATO Hold Up Afghan Force Size Increase

The White House and NATO are holding up a decision on increasing the size of Afghan security forces because of their concerns over the cost and possible objections from Pakistan, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said.

Levin said he urged President Barack Obama at a White House event yesterday to approve an increase in the goal for the number of Afghan soldiers and police officers to 378,000, beyond the current plan to field 305,000 by October. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Army General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, have all recommended the increase, Levin said.

“I urged the president strongly and with very direct words that this needed to be done,” Levin told reporters at the Capitol in Washington today after returning from a week-long trip to Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. The decision is necessary “to enhance the possibilities of success of our mission and to speed up the reduction of our forces,” he said.

The coalition fighting in Afghanistan, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, aims to turn back the Taliban and build an Afghan army and police force to take over from the foreign troops. Obama plans to begin a U.S. drawdown in July, and officials have said that training is on schedule to meet the current goal of 305,000 Afghan forces in the field by October.

The Pakistan Factor

In addition to the concerns over cost, the U.S. may be considering objections from Pakistan to having so many Afghan troops across the border, Levin said. Such an objection would be “interesting,” considering that Pakistan has often blamed Afghanistan for not controlling the flow of fighters over its border.

“They can’t have it both ways,” Levin said. “If they want the Afghans to take greater responsibility on their side of the border to stop the flow, then they should not object to the Afghan security forces being enlarged.”

Pakistan wants to help Afghanistan achieve “stability and lasting peace,” said Imran Gardezi, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.

“It is the sovereign right of the government and people of Afghanistan to determine the size of their national army and police,” Gardezi said in an e-mail today. “Pakistan has offered its cooperation in training Afghan national army and police personnel.”

Considering Many Factors

The White House is considering many factors in determining the ultimate strength of the Afghan force, including costs and quality as well as quantity, an administration official said on condition of anonymity because the decision-making process isn’t public.

Navy Captain John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen, and Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, both declined to comment.

“There is ongoing discussion, but no decisions have been made,” said Marine Corps Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.

Levin has long pressed the administration to bring more Afghan soldiers into the fight with the 48-nation coalition and place them in the lead as much as possible.

The committee chairman said he was pleased with the progress. He and Democratic Senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Jon Tester of Montana met with the NATO training commander, Lieutenant General William Caldwell and visited a U.S.-Afghan headquarters in the Arghandab district, outside of the southern Taliban heartland of Kandahar.

Joint U.S.-Afghan Operations

The Afghan and coalition troops are “literally living together and carrying out joint operations together and, more and more, where the Afghans are in the lead,” Levin said yesterday in a telephone interview. “The numbers are pretty striking, both the number of recruits but also the rate of attrition has gone way down over the last year.”

Levin today compared the training goal of 305,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers this year with the size of the Iraqi security force. Iraq had more than 666,000 security force personnel as of May 2010, according to the Pentagon. That’s more than twice as many as Afghanistan, even though Iraq’s population is slightly smaller, Levin said.

Caldwell’s mission not only trains and mentors the Afghans but also provides equipment, builds facilities and improves or establishes institutes and oversight structures, such as inspectors general.

After years without sufficient resources, the coalition established a new command in 2009, put Caldwell in charge and reached or exceeded recruiting and training numbers last year.

“We’re finally beginning to see some positive and tangible results,” said Reed, who had visited Afghanistan twice last year.

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