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Can the Afghan army endure?

The future of the U.S. military isn't the only thing up in the air as everyone braces for the Big Crunch: The fate of the Afghan National Security Forces also hangs in the balance, and if anything, its situation is even dicier. Afghanistan doesn't have a huge corporate defense industry to lobby on its behalf, or millions of veterans, or an indispensable global role.

Congressional lawmakers on Thursday raised key questions about the future of Afghanistan's military that top Pentagon leaders could not answer, in part because the U.S. has been so focused on just standing up Afghanistan's capabilities that it hasn't thought much about their long-term prospects. The U.S. has spent about $27 billion on Afghan soldiers and their equipment, and it'll be impossible for Afghanistan's feeble economy to sustain a force that costs that much.

Didn't it occur to anyone that the U.S. might be creating something that would just implode under its own weight? asked Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. (The Afghan army was only one of her worries; she also blasted DoD, State and other agencies for spending billions on infrastructure and development, also apparently without asking whether Afghans would be able to afford to sustain it.) After the U.S. gives the Afghans primary responsibility for their own defense in 2014, McCaskill asked, how will the army feed, train and equip itself?

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a rhetorical shrug. We know this is a problem and we're working on it, he said. ISAF boss Marine Gen. John Allen has made "sustainability" one of his priorities, and Mullen said the goal was to reduce the long-term cost of the Afghan forces by 70  or 80 percent. Mullen and Secretary Panetta acknowledged the U.S. would have to keep funding the Afghan forces at least for the medium term, but they also said NATO should also share some of the expense, too. That's another international diplomatic battle to look forward to.

The state and future of the Afghan forces was the subject of its own entire hearing Thursday by the House Armed Services Committee, where DoD witnesses said that at least the Afghans are performing a lot better now than they once did. Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Neller rattled off some statistics: Two years ago, Afghan recruits' rifle qualification rate was 35 percent; now it's 95 percent. They used to have a smorgasbord of different weapons, but now they have a standard-issue rifle. They had a hodgepodge of boots and uniforms, but now there's a standard kit, manufactured in Afghanistan. Slowly but surely, these soldiers are becoming a real army, he said.

The other DoD witness, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, said in answer to lawmakers' questions that, yes, the U.S. would have to keep funding at least part of the Afghan army's expenses after 2014 -- but that amount would shrink. The expense would decrease now that many of the army's startup costs are paid, she said, or at least reach a plateau as the force shifted its focus to sustain what it had already built. And as Afghanistan's agricultural and mineral economies get working in the postwar world, it could also contribute more to its own defense, Flournoy said.

Sounds great, said Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a Hawaii Democrat -- so, what kind of savings are we looking at here?

"We do not have a definitive number," Flournoy said. "We are still scrubbing that to bring it down. We are working that."

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