WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's choice to take charge of the war in Afghanistan Tuesday called "significant growth" of the Afghan army and national police the key to his strategy, but the annual cost of building and maintaining the existing Afghan force is more than four times larger than the entire Afghan economy.
Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination to lead U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, suggested that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is likely to cost American taxpayers and NATO member nations billions of dollars for many years.
The Afghan National Army is now 86,000 strong, and the national police have 81,000 members. The U.S. military has said it wants to expand the Army to 134,000 and the police to 82,000 by the end of 2011. McChrystal said he plans to boost those figures, but said he won't know by how much until he's in Afghanistan.
However, maintaining and building the security forces to the current 2011 goals is estimated to cost roughly $4 billion a year, while Afghanistan's economy generates only $800 million a year. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told McChrystal Tuesday that the U.S. would have to foot the bill for years.
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"We are building an army they will never be able to afford," a senior U.S. military official told McClatchy. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
Moreover, many Afghans consider the national police a corrupt force that demands bribes to complete the most routine tasks, from passing a checkpoint to paying a utility bill, and the U.S. plan to pay for a larger force could backfire.
McChrystal, who now heads the U.S. Special Operations Command, also promised to reduce the civilian casualties that are eroding Afghan support for the U.S.-led coalition by improving the precision of U.S. attacks on Taliban and al Qaida targets and re-examining U.S. tactics and rules of engagement.
"Our willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage — even when doing so makes our task more difficult — is essential to our credibility," McChrystal said.
McChrystal said he thinks he'll have no more than 24 months to turn the situation in Afghanistan around.
Senators didn't press McChrystal aggressively during the nearly three-hour hearing, and the Senate is expected to confirm him as early as Thursday.
Nevertheless, his nomination has generated some debate. As the Special Operations commander, he oversaw U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan who allegedly abused detainees, and the operations he oversaw in Afghanistan resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties.
McChrystal also was the special operations commander when former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman was killed in 2004. The Army initially claimed that Tillman had been killed in an enemy attack, but later that admitted that he'd been killed by friendly fire.
McChrystal, who signed a letter recommending Tillman for a Silver Star despite the questions about the circumstances of his death, said the mistakes in reporting how Tillman died weren't intentional and stressed he never endorsed abuse of detainees "and I never will."
However, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, told McChrystal that the "the Army failed the family." The general agreed and offered his apology.
"We failed the family. I was a part of that, and I apologize for that," he said.
There currently are 54,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That number includes some of the 17,500 American troops and 4,000 trainers that the Obama administration pledged to send, many to southern Afghanistan, to take on a resurgent Taliban.
McChrystal is to succeed Army Gen. David McKiernan, whom Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired last month after less than a year in the post.
McKiernan was ousted for four main reasons, the senior U.S. military official said. Gates and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, thought he'd moved too slowly, especially in the U.S. effort to reach out to local security leaders in eastern Afghanistan and root out the growing Taliban insurgency.
McKiernan also opposed adding a three-star general in Afghanistan to deal with day-to-day operations, something that Pentagon officials considered necessary. There also were concerns that his request for 30,000 additional troops was shaped by how much strain the military could handle, not by the requirements on the ground. Finally, the senior military official said, the administration was concerned about mounting civilian causalities during his tenure.
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