The Obama administration is considering boosting the Afghan security forces by as many as 73,000 as the United States prepares to begin a gradual drawdown of troops from the country in July, top Defense officials told Congress Thursday.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the exact size of the Afghan security force and how quickly it can grow are issues "still very much in discussion."
The administration is considering expanding the Afghan army and police force by 352,000 to 378,000 personnel; that would be a significant increase from the current goal of 305,000 personnel in the security forces by October.
"None of us disagree about the importance of this mission," Mullen told the committee.
In January, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., urged President Obama to sign off on a proposal to expand the Afghan forces to 378,000 and said that both Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates supported that goal.
Any increase in the size of the Afghan forces would come with a hefty price tag; Levin said Thursday that NATO allies should share in that cost. He has said previously that Afghanistan should also help foot the bill.
The Pentagon's fiscal 2012 budget request includes $12.8 billion for Afghan national security forces, a figure that Gates said the United States cannot sustain indefinitely. Significantly decreasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 2014 would help bring down the overall cost of the Afghan war and alleviate some budgetary pressures, the secretary noted.
Meanwhile, Gates said he supports the plan to begin drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July, based on conditions on the ground. But he cautioned that he does not want the drawdown to prompt a "rush to the exits" by the 50,000 allied troops currently deployed to Afghanistan.
Gates emphasized that he needs to reassure allies that any withdrawal from Afghanistan must be gradual and based upon conditions on the ground. The decrease should not be "mathematical," he said. If the United States reduces its 98,000-troop force by 1 percent or 2 percent, Gates said, allies -- particularly those with small forces -- should not necessarily do the same.