The new goals for Afghanistan are to make it good enough. The question NATO faces this weekend is whether even that costs too much.
In order to seal plans to pull most of their troops out in 2014, leaders of the allies meet in Chicago this weekend to set plans for paying Afghan bills in the decade that follows.
Canada has sent 900 troops to train what is supposed to be a bigger and better Afghan force that can take over in 2014, but it's expected to be decided this weekend that the Afghan forces can shrink to a smaller size, more in line with what the world will pay for.
Already, responding to U.S. pressure, key allies like Britain, Australia, and Germany have pledged sums between $100-million and $200-million a year for the project. Canada is expected to follow suit with its own pledge in Chicago. But those sums are a small part of the $4-billion a year that even a shrunken Afghan force will cost.
NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said earlier this week he'd like to see the Canadians stay – annoying Prime Minister Stephen Harper, according to sources. The Prime Minister wants to hear U.S. President Barack Obama make the case for an extension, one official said, and is unlikely to commit in Chicago.
After years of war, the leaders convening in Chicago on Sunday – including an electioneering Mr. Obama – face weary publics anxious to get their troops home, as well as tight budgets, debts, and nervous financial markets. Even Mr. Harper, who pulled combat troops from Kandahar last year, faces opposition to extending the Canadian training mission after 2014.
NATO leaders now face pressure to reassure Afghanistan's current leaders that they won't be left to the Taliban wolves when the Western combat troops depart, a fear that already undermines Western efforts. Another is to scale down ambitions to match the West's political and financial means.
The goal of handing over the lead role in combat to Afghan forces in 2014 has been accelerated by Mr. Obama, and other countries, notably France, are signalling they'll leave even sooner. The American commander in the country, Gen. John Allen, has made it the main priority to push Afghan forces into fighting faster.
Gone are the days when NATO leaders spoke of bringing good governance to Afghanistan, and set the goals in terms of sending girls to school, creating a democracy, and ensuring human rights. Now, the objectives are more modest, closer to what analysts have termed "Afghanistan good enough."
Mr. Harper outlined his own limited objectives earlier this week, when he said the goal should be to prevent Afghanistan from being a source of international terrorism. Mr. Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, described similar objectives Friday, in very modest terms.
"The goal is to have an Afghanistan that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded," he said. "No. 2, an Afghanistan that has a set of security assets that allow it to provide for that modicum of stability and to be able to protect itself against groups like that."
Even the modest goal of a "modicum of stability" after 2014 will be in doubt with a rush to cut funding, according to some experts.
The current Afghan National Security Force of about 345,000 – an army of 195,000 and a police force of almost 150,000 – is just shy of the goal of 352,000 that had been set for a buildup. But NATO is expected to endorse a smaller force, with some floating numbers as low as 228,500.
That's because it's the outside world that will have to pay. The bigger force would cost more than $6-billion a year; the smaller one, about $4.1-billion a year.
But moving quickly to the cheaper force is bad planning, and hardly worth saving a few billion dollars when the U.S. is spending $100-billion a year on the war now, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at influential Washington think tank the Brookings Institution.
"It's sort of crazy to go from spending $100-billion a year, from the American perspective, to worrying about whether $4-billion or $6-billion is the maximum affordable amount after 2015. And to not even worry about whether you lose the war as a result of that," Mr. O'Hanlon said.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, because the amount of money that's at issue is not big enough to ultimately be a show-stopper."