Sequester plan could derail Afghan postwar plans, says Defense secretary

A U.S. and NATO effort to bolster Afghanistan's military and national police ahead of the American troop drawdown from the country in 2014 could fall apart due to massive, across-the-board defense cuts under the White House's sequestration plan. 

American and NATO leaders are hashing out funding proposals that would allow the Afghan National Security Forces to remain at the current level of 352,000 troops. Alliance officials announced the plan on Thursday, during the defense ministerial at NATO headquarters in Brussels. 

The plan, according to alliance officials, would provide funding to Kabul to maintain the current ANSF force into 2018, four years after all American combat troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. 

Increased U.S. investment to maintain current force levels for Afghan military and police will eventually save the Pentagon billions in drawdown costs, as DOD prepares to bring the war in Afghanistan to a close, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Brussels on Friday. 

"That would be an investment that would be worth making, because it would allow us greater flexibility as we take down our troops," Panetta said. 

The move, he added, "would allow us greater flexibility, frankly, to save ... the funds that we now dedicate to the warfighting effort." 

But as those talks in Europe continue, Panetta warned that across-the-board defense budget cuts under the administration's sequestration plan could derail the entire effort. 

"If sequester does take place, it could impact not only our readiness, but, frankly, the role that we would play with regards to the readiness of NATO, as well," Panetta said.  

"So all of that would be impacted if [sequester] occurred," he added. 

More than $500 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next decade are set to go into effect on March 1. 

Congressional lawmakers have resigned themselves to the fact the cuts under sequestration will be triggered, despite efforts on Capitol Hill to stave off those reductions. 

"Sequester is going to kick in and as people see what it is ... that will hopefully force us" to come up with a solution for stopping them, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told reporters last Friday during a breakfast in Washington.

"We are going to be forced into it," McKeon said at the time. "We have just not been able to get past the politics of it [all]."

Top defense lawmakers have pushed the White House and DOD to continue funding for Afghan forces, claiming those forces would not be able to keep the Taliban from retaking power in the country after U.S. troops depart. 

Last May, U.S. and NATO military leaders agreed to funnel $1.4 billion into Afghan coffers to maintain that 230,000-man ANSF force during the alliance's annual summit in Chicago last May.

At the time, alliance leaders believed the 230,000-man-strong ANSF would be enough to maintain gains made by American and NATO forces in the country, particularly in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan. 

But on Thursday, NATO leaders backed off that plan and began laying the groundwork for maintaining the 352,000-strong ANSF force into 2018.  

Despite the looming threat of sequestration, Panetta said he was confident he could sell the ANSF plan — and its potential price tag — to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, despite the current fiscal crunch the department is under. 

"I think I can make that case to the Congress, that that would be an effective trade-off," he said on financing efforts to maintain current ANSF force levels.  

NATO officials have declined to comment on how much it would cost to equip and support that sized force into 2018.