OTTAWA - The commander of the Canadian army says he doubts the international community will have the cash or the political stomach after 2014 to sustain the sprawling Afghan security force being trained by NATO allies.
Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, the chief of land staff, recently returned from Kabul where roughly 950 Canadians have settled in for a three-year stint under the newly-established training mission.
Some of the questions on his mind during a round of meetings with NATO commanders involved whether the Afghan government will have the means of paying for an army and a police force that is expected to top out at 352,000 members. Devlin also wondered if the perceived threat from Taliban insurgents required building a force of that size.
Current estimates from the country's defence minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, see the Afghans spending over $6.2 billion a year to pay and equip their forces. That's in a country where the budget of the entire federal treasury is $4 billion much of that foreign aid.
Devlin, who commanded NATO's multi-national brigade in Kabul in 2003-04, said the shortfall needs to be recognized.
"Is the international community willing to pay for that?" he asked, rhetorically, in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "And I'm unsure they will be able to pay for that .... It's my sense."
The ongoing European debt crisis, budget gridlock in the U.S. and even the Harper government's war on the deficit in Canada could all take their toll as western combat forces slowly untangle themselves after more than a decade of fighting.
"My opinion is that the population in those (donor) countries will have a tough time seeing, identifying, feeling the threat that the governments are trying to manage on their behalf," said Devlin.
"There are governments that are trying to deal with the wishes of their people and are dealing with the fiscal reality of 2014. And I'm uncertain there will be the resources and the willingness to pay for the delta that will exist between the Afghan government's ability to pay and the cost of an Afghan National Army."
Such a scenario might be uncomfortable, but Devlin said it could force the Karzai government to take more ownership of security forces and their budget than in the past. It could also "energize conversations" with the Taliban, he added.
"So, I think there are lots of things that could happen between now and then, not all bad. Some aren't very pleasant. I believe this pressure creates opportunities for good things to happen to Afghanistan," Devlin said.
Academics and congressional researchers in the U.S. have been pondering and debating these questions for months. In contrast, there has been virtually no public discussion in Canada about the future of Afghanistan, despite the deaths of 158 Canadian soldiers and the expenditure of as much as $18 billion of taxpayer dollars.
Some of the discussion in the U.S. has revolved around whether the Afghan army needs to be as big as planned.
Devlin said the jury is still out.
"My belief is that they would be better off with a right-sized professional army than they are with a larger, less professional army," he said.
"They are doing a great job balancing quantity and quality right now. And I think as 2014 approaches that they are better placed by having the weight ... swing towards quality. That is my sense."
Despite the reservations, Devlin does not foresee Canada's involvement in the training mission ending sooner than 2014. He suggested its shape could change in terms of the types of soldiers dispatched for instruction.
Appearing before a House of Commons committee last fall, the Defence Department's senior policy official acknowledged the international community needs to draft a sustainability plan. Jill Sinclair added it is cheaper to fund Afghan forces than to deploy western troops.
"There is no question the Afghan government will need the support of the international community for a long time to come," she said.
"In many other post-conflict situations, we've seen this need for sustained engagement to build the security forces because the worst thing you could do is stand them up and then leave them."