U.S., Afghanistan At Odds Over Weapons Wish List

The U.S. and the international community have pledged $16 billion to support Afghan security forces after NATO troops complete their drawdown at the end of 2014. That money covers the cost of troops and equipment.

But just what equipment will be provided? Afghan military officials want big-ticket planes, tanks and other conventional weapons.

The U.S., however, says the Afghans need to get their strategic priorities in order, and focus less on prestige hardware and more on weaponry and equipment suitable for counterinsurgency warfare.

The opinion of Afghan Col. Abdul Qudos Ghani typifies the dilemma. He is the commander of the 3-year-old Armor Branch School, an Afghan army training compound on the outskirts of Kabul where NATO advisers provide much of the training.

"We can fight the insurgents inside of Afghanistan with the weapons we have, but to control our borders, we should have heavy weapons," Ghani says.

And by heavy weapons he means artillery, jets and tanks. Many other Afghan commanders and defense officials echo Ghani's sentiments.

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai went to Washington last month, he had a wish list of military hardware he wanted from the U.S.

But that list has "disappeared in the Pentagon, or it's gone to one of the shelves of the White House," says Shukria Barakzai, a member of the Afghan Parliament's defense committee.

She says she was disappointed by the results of the talks in Washington. She says it's essential for Afghanistan to build up a conventional military to deter hostile neighbors.

"If we don't have it at all, it will be a big threat, not only for Afghanistan but globally," Barakzai says.

Afghans Getting Ahead Of Themselves?

The U.S. and NATO don't share this view.

"We are building the [Afghan security forces] to fight a counterinsurgency war in our own image," says Brig. Gen. Adam Findlay, an Australian who's part of the NATO operations staff in Afghanistan.

Findlay says that the Afghans are getting ahead of themselves in looking for more advanced and conventional hardware.

"Our interests and the Afghan government's interests are imperfectly aligned," he says.

Afghanistan expert Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations says one reason is that Karzai wants heavy weaponry to win more loyalty from his military commanders.

"It's not uncommon for armies and air forces in the developing world to buy equipment for prestige purposes that, when you look at the objective nature of the threats they face, is a poor fit," Biddle says.

Need For Clear Military Strategy

He and others argue this is what's missing right now: an objective analysis.

"We do not have in our military sector any clear strategy, and we do not have any clear strategy in the political level," he says.

Atiqullah Baryalai is a former Afghan deputy defense minister.

"The real threat in front of Afghanistan is going to be insurgency and the radicalism in the region," Baryalai says.

And so for the next decade or so, he says, Afghanistan should develop a national security strategy based around that threat. And that means Afghanistan needs mobile and less expensive weaponry — helicopters, light artillery, armored personnel carriers. Biddle agrees.

"If we're going to be paying the bills, I think it's reasonable to ask that the military we're building pursue interests that the U.S. has in the region," he says.

Biddle and Baryalai say that involves one thing the Obama administration has struggled to do: make clear to Karzai America's interests in the region.

NPR's Sultan Faizy and Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.

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