President Obama insists that the big U.S. role in Afghanistan is coming to an end -- he may use his State of the Union speech Tuesday to announce more cuts from the 66,000 American troops currently deployed there.
What's not coming to an end is the gusher of billions of dollars the United States is pouring into support of Afghanistan's army and national police. Since 2002, that has added up to $57 billion, if Congress gets around to appropriating the $5.7 billion the White House has requested for fiscal 2013.
Never mind that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), despite almost a decade of effort by the United States and others, is failing to achieve self-sufficiency.
It's going to cost American taxpayers another $25 billion to keep the Afghan security forces going for the next five years, according to a new study released Monday by the Government Accountability Office. America pays about 91 percent of the cost of Afghan security forces; the allies plan to chip in about $1 billion a year, and Afghanistan itself promises $500 million a year.
That still leaves a gap in funding, the GAO reports in its just-the-facts-ma'am government gumshoe voice, "raising concerns about the sustainability of ANSF."
Translation: the contest between the White House and the Pentagon over how many fewer U.S. troops (White House) or more U.S. troops (Pentagon) are deployed in Afghanistan after 2014 tilts to the "more" side as the under-funded ANSF struggles to master the complex business of an enduring counterinsurgency campaign.
The thrust of the GAO report is this: either we pay more money for the ANSF, or we keep our troops -- trainers, advisers, enablers -- there longer. If the Afghan army and police can't manage their own combat logistics, medical evacuation and care, close air support and other vital missions, the U.S. will have to do those things for them.
Or is it possible we have over-envisioned what the Afghan security forces should be able to do? The Taliban, after all, don't have close air support either.