New strategy looks forward, but we’re still stuck in Afghanistan

Image Credit: Brennan Linsley, The Associated Press

Mary Kaszynski
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

The much-anticipated defense strategic guidance, the result of an eight-month review of U.S. military strategy, was released last week. One of the big changes from the defense review of two years ago is that “prevail in today’s wars” is no longer a top priority. Indeed, the new strategic guidance “transitions our Defense enterprise from an emphasis on today’s wars to preparing for future challenges.”

That the war in Afghanistan is no longer an important factor in shaping US strategy was made even more explicit in Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s remarks following the unveiling of the new strategy: “We will not retain force structure in the ground forces for large and prolonged stability operations as have been required in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “This does not mean abandoning COIN [counter insurgency operations] or any such thing, but we do not see the U.S. conducting such operations on its own as likely in the future.”

President Obama calls this “turning the page on a decade of war.” The Washington Post describes it as “declaring success in Iraq and Afghanistan and taking a forward-looking stance on the how to preserve U.S. military pre-eminence.” Even Republican presidential candidates agree that there are more pressing national security threats than Afghanistan.

There is a good reason for the lack of focus on Afghanistan. After al Qaeda, Afghanistan has little strategic importance. As a national security threat Afghanistan pales in comparison to concerns like Iran. Political rhetoric and the new strategy guidance notwithstanding, the war in Afghanistan is still a major part of our foreign policy. The number of US troops in Afghanistan peaked at about 100,000 in 2011; 90,000 troops remain today. This translates into: about $120 billion for the just war in Afghanistan in 2011, and $110 billion in 2012. We’ll find out more about how far that amount may fall in 2013 with the president’s budget request, to be released in February.

Of course, war costs will go down as the drawdown progresses. But the pace of the drawdown, and the meaning of the 2014 deadline, has never been more unclear. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker recently admitted that the US presence in Afghanistan after 2014 may include some combat forces, not just trainers and advisers. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Fluornoy followed up with “2014 is not a withdrawal date–it’s an inflection point.” And the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan General John Allen was even more blunt. “If you been waiting for us to go, we’re not leaving,” he said.

The one thing missing from arguments for keeping troops in Afghanistan is any consideration of how much this would cost. Leaving cost of out the picture may be deliberate – after all, those who argue for prolonging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the same ones who criticize the strategic guidance for being “budget-driven.” The implication is that strategy should be made in a vacuum – ignoring fiscal realities. Afghanistan is a perfect example. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that keeping 45,000 troops in Afghanistan till 2021 would cost almost $500 billion, bringing the total costs of both wars to almost $2 trillion. This would have a direct effect on our national security – diverting resources from more important threats – and an indirect effect, weakening our already weak economy.

Admiral Mike Mullen once called the national debt our greatest national security threat; out-of-control war spending contributed to this crisis and will continue as long as the war in Afghanistan continues. The new strategy guidance takes a step in the right direction by acknowledging that Afghanistan and similar conflicts should not be a part of future US strategy. Whether this strategic reality translates into a more disciplined budget remains to be seen.

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