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U.S. plan for larger force of Afghans stirs alarm

A U.S.-backed plan to hire 73,000 new Afghan soldiers and police officers has raised concern among diplomats in Kabul over the quality of recruits and the sustainability of an increasingly costly security apparatus financed almost entirely by international donors.

The plan represents a24 percent increase over an initial American goal. It would cost the United States an additional $6 billion next year, roughly twice as much as previously planned, and could saddle Washington and other donors with heftier Afghan security costs for years, if not decades, to come.

The United States and its NATO allies had been racing to build up an Afghan army and police force capable of fighting a counterinsurgency war and protecting President Hamid Karzai's government. They are on track to meet the initial U.S. goal of having roughly 305,000 security forces by October.

But after November's NATO conference in Lisbon, Portugal, the Afghan government and the coalition training command proposed a new target: adding as many as 378,000 forces by October 2012. The goal, according to a senior U.S. military official in Kabul, emerged as part of a new concept developed at the conference: "irreversible transition."

The new phrase, now heard all over Kabul, was coined to emphasize the U.S. goal to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans over the next four years in a way that guarantees that the Taliban will not prevail and that U.S. forces will not be dragged back into the fight.

"That's a new twist -- it's no longer, 'Hey, have enough coalition and Afghan security forces based upon the security situation.' It's also, 'Make sure you set the conditions for irreversible transition,' " the U.S. military official said. "There are other capabilities they need that don't reside in the '305,000-member' force."

The United States and other international donors pay for the bulk of the country's security costs. As the war enters its 10th year, the Afghan government is years away from being able to make payroll and pay for such essentials as weapons, vehicles, fuel and uniforms. Karzai has said the country's security forces will rely on outside help until at least 2020.

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