Do you want to spend another $88 Billion in Afghanistan?

Mary Kaszynski
Afghanistan Study Group

Of the 90,000 troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, 22,000 are scheduled to come home this summer. The 2013 drawdown plan hasn’t been revealed, but Sec. Panetta’s announcement that combat operations may end in 2013 seems to indicate a faster drawdown than previously expected.

The war in Afghanistan may be winding down faster than expected, but it continues to cost billions. One week from today the president will unveil a spending plan for 2013. His request is expected to include $525 billion for the Department of Defense, plus an additional $88 billion for war costs.

We’ve mentioned before that this number seems suspiciously high, considering the pace of the drawdown, We’re not the only ones who think so. At the budget briefing two weeks ago a reporter noted that the cut from last year’s war costs to this year “doesn’t seem like it’s that much of a reduction” and asked DOD officials to “give us some sense of what that’s for, that 88.4 billion?” JCS Chair General Dempsey’s response: “For recapitalization, for reconstitution, we’ve always said that it would take years following the end of the conflict to recapitalize the force.  And some of the OCO costs are caught up in that. ”

Dempsey’s answer is not that surprising. The need to “recapitalize” or “reset” the force after a decade of war is a favorite line for those who want to keep defense spending high. Trimming the defense budget, we are told, would hollow out our military forces and leave us open to all sorts of dangers.

The problem with this argument is that it’s simply not true. A new report from the Congressional Research Service says, in a typically understated way, “it can be argued that the use of the term “hollow force” is inappropriate under present circumstances.”

Recent defense spending trends confirm this. Over the past ten years, the US has spent close to $1 trillion on defense procurement, according to a recent report from the Stimson Center. $233 billion, or 22% of that total, came from the war costs account. Thanks to the war funding, the Army was able to upgrade most of its combat and support vehicles – and then some. The GAO estimates that over 40% of the funds the Army requested for the “reset” went to programs that “although beneficial to the Army, do not directly relate to replacing lost equipment or repairing worn or damaged systems.”

War spending has consistently been given a special status, exempt from the scrutiny applied to other areas of government spending. This is unlikely to change in the near future. In fact, since the Budget Control Act of 2011 exempts war funding from spending caps, it is even more likely that non-war expenses will find their way into the war account.

What does this mean for the American taxpayer? It means that the price tag for the war in Afghanistan – $88 billion if the 2013 request is fully funded – will include a war that the majority of Americans do not support, plus some equipment that the Army doesn’t need, and who knows what else. The war may be winding down, but the Defense Department’s shady accounting practices continue, at the expense of the American taxpayer.

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