BRUSSELS — After months of tense negotiations over the size and role of a postwar presence in Afghanistan, senior NATO officials say they are planning a more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are not squandered or pilfered, the New York Times reported Sunday, citing unnamed officials.
The shrinking ambitions for the postwar mission reflect fears that the U.S. Congress and European parliaments might cancel their financial commitments — amounting to more than $4 billion a year, the largest single military assistance program in the world — unless U.S. and NATO troops are positioned at Afghan military and police headquarters to oversee how the money is spent in a country known for rampant corruption.
The reduced scope is also a result of conflicting interests among military and political leaders that have been on display throughout the 12-year war. Military commanders have advocated a postwar mission focused on training and advising Afghans, with a larger number of troops spread across the battlefield. Political leaders in Washington and in NATO capitals have opted for smaller numbers and assignments only at large Afghan headquarters.
Any enduring NATO military presence in Afghanistan is tied directly to the $4.1 billion and NATO's ability to oversee it and account for it, a senior NATO diplomat said.
The senior diplomat and other military officials spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity to discuss the alliance's deliberations. The diplomat described continued financing to Afghan security forces as vital to avoid political chaos and factional bloodshed after NATO's combat role ends in December 2014.
NATO has endorsed an enduring presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with two-thirds expected to be American. That is well below earlier recommendations by commanders, but senior NATO officials say larger numbers are unnecessary given the more limited goals now being set by the alliance's political leaders.
The postwar plan depends on a security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan concerning the number, role and legal protection of U.S. troops. A traditional Afghan council is expected to meet in the coming weeks to pass its judgment on the proposed U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement.
Pentagon officials say they still want at least some U.S. commandos to remain to carry out counterterrorism missions, unilaterally or in coordination with Afghan forces.
Even so, some Afghanistan policy experts, including former military commanders, say the focus on the money makes sense.
David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who spent 19 months as the senior U.S. officer in Afghanistan, agreed that sustained financial assistance was the "strategic center of gravity."
"The most important thing we can do is keep writing checks so the Afghan national security forces can remain funded — fuel, food, weapons, salaries," said Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "If that continues, they will be at least able to maintain a stalemate with the Taliban, and that is enough to keep the state up and running."