The Obama administration hopes to wind down the long Afghan war by shifting responsibility for securing the country to Afghanistan’s nascent army and national police. One thing’s for certain: It won’t be cheap.
The overall U.S. mission in Afghanistan is already shifting from direct combat to training and mentoring the Afghan forces, which are slated to grow to 352,000 by the end of 2012. Boosting the numbers of capable Afghan forces would carry both human and financial benefits for the U.S, reducing the likelihood of American battlefield casualties and allowing the withdrawal of U.S. troops costing a whopping $1 million each per year to station there.
Still, a close look at U.S. military statistics shows that Afghan soldiers and police officers are far more expensive than you’d expect. They are paid an average of just $1,872 a year, but the overall cost of training and fielding a police officer is roughly $30,000 per year, while the cost of each soldier is nearly $46,000 per year. the United States bears virtually all of those costs, adding up to more than $3.5 billion a year.
The financial breakdown is a different way of looking at the training push, which usually makes the news solely because of the rising numbers of so-called “green on blue” incidents of Afghan troops killing their U.S. or NATO counterparts.
A leaked report prepared last year for the NATO command in Kabul said that Afghan soldiers and police officers attacked Western troops at least 26 times between May 2007 and May 2011, killing approximately 58 U.S. and NATO troops. The pace of such attacks has been steadily increasing since 2009, the report found. So far this year, at least 17 more NATO troops have died at the hands of Afghan security personnel, making those attacks the second leading cause of coalition fatalities in 2012.
U.S. officials hope that stepping up their efforts to vet and monitor Afghan security personnel will gradually weed out troops with extremist tendencies or affinities for the Taliban.
The surprisingly high costs of supporting the overall Afghan security force, by contrast, won’t be coming down any time soon. What accounts for those expenses, which exceed by amount of money actually paid to the Afghan troops by 30-to-1 and 45-to-1.
Military statistics show that many of the Afghans' expenses mirror costs incurred by the U.S. and its NATO allies: building new bases, maintaining existing ones, and moving gas, fuel and other supplies across a large country with few paved or safe roads.
Consider the Afghan army, many of whose 170,000 soldiers make roughly $156 per month. The Afghan government – mostly using funds from the U.S. - spends $2,437,200,000 per year equipping its overall force, or $14,336 per soldier. Those expenses alone – which go toward purchasing aircraft, vehicles, weapons, body armor and other equipment – are eight times as high as the total yearly salary of the average soldier.
NATO has to expend similarly large sums for equipping its own forces, but other expenses reflect the unique challenges of training and educating a largely illiterate force of young Afghans, many of whom have rarely traveled beyond their home village. The Afghan government devotes $844,000,000 to training its army, or $4,965 per soldier. That is more than double each soldier’s salary.
To be fair, Afghan troops are paying other, grimmer costs that far exceed those of their U.S. allies. At least 5,681 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed in the line of duty between 2007 and 2011, according to data collected by the Brookings Institution. That is more than double the 2,325 NATO troops killed over the same time period and more than triple the number of U.S. war dead during those years.
Those casualties – and the financial costs of supporting the Afghan troops doing the fighting and dying – are nevertheless crucial to U.S. hopes of gradually withdrawing from the country. A report last year by the Center for a New American Security concluded that the war “may ultimately be won or lost by the ability of [Afghan security forces] to assume leadership in this counterinsurgency fight.”
Washington is planning to reduce the overall size of the Afghan forces to about 230,000 after U.S. and NATO forces depart the country at the end of 2014. That would cut NATO’s out-of-pocket expenses for the Afghan forces from roughly $7 billion to roughly $4.1 billion annaully. The U.S. is likely to pay about $2.5 billion of those costs for the indefinite future.
Those ongoing expenses reinforce a point that American policymakers and the war-weary public have long known about the Afghan war: No aspect of it, in either human or financial terms, comes cheap.