$500 billion for a stalemate

Mary Kaszynski
Afghanistan Study Group

Between reports of violence on the one hand, and optimistic assessments of US war efforts on the other, the American public receives contradictory and incomplete assessments on the war in Afghanistan.  Case in point: the classified National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan.

Everyone seems to agree that the report indicates a divide between the intelligence community and the Pentagon – an understandable divide, as expert Robert Farley explains, that can be attributed to different metrics for success and different institutional interests. Beyond that, however, there is little agreement on the implications of the new NIE. In fact, because the document is classified, it has reinforced both sides of the debate, rather than resolve it.

The LA Times, which first broke the story, says the NIE concludes that the war is “mired in stalemate,” and that progress from the surge is “undercut by pervasive corruption, incompetent governance and Taliban fighters operating from neighboring Pakistan.” This seems to contradict what military leaders and some defense experts have been saying. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for example, insists that we have made“substantial progress” in the war.  ”We’re moving in the right direction and we’re winning this very tough conflict,” Panetta said in December. His optimism is shared by some defense experts. “Many Americans may still see Afghanistan as a quagmire, but there really is a strategy. And it’s beginning to work,” Michael O’Hanlon and John Nagl wrote last month.

After the NIE, the debate is the same. Some say that the document confirms what they’ve been saying all along: the administration’s 2014 deadline is too soon, and that what we need to break the stalemate is more troops. Others say that report’s conclusion – that military gains will likely erode after the withdrawal – will speed up the timeline.

Representatives Jim McGovern and Walter Jones have made that case for declassifying the NIE, arguing that greater transparency would help resolve the debate on the drawdown. “The American public and its elected representatives deserve to have a full understanding of the situation in and outlook for Afghanistan as understood by our government,” they wrote in a letter to the president. “Too many families of our service members are sacrificing too greatly to allow for anything else.”

Declassifying the NIE would be a good step towards clarifying the Afghanistan debate. Even if the report stays classified, however, we can still look to the numbers for the real story.  Over $500 billion taxpayer dollars has been spent on the war. As much as $60 billion has been lost to waste and corruption. Even as troops are withdrawn, costs continue to soar – shipping costs, for example, are six times higher now that Pakistan has closed its border crossing to NATO convoys.

And that’s just the economic side. Let’s not forget about the lives lost: some 12,500 Afghan civilians and almost 2,000 US troops killed, plus 15,000 wounded in action.

That’s a high price to pay for a stalemate.

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