Cutting veterans’ benefits to save the war budget

Mary Kaszynski
Afghanistan Study Group

The US spends hundreds of billions on operations, security, and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, with little oversight. Meanwhile, in the US, soldiers who fought in Afghanistan struggle to pay their medical bills.

The costs of caring for wounded vets has more than doubled over the past ten years, from $62 billion in 2004 to $140 billion requested in 2013. Only a fraction of that is dedicated to mental healthcare programs – $6.2 billion, a slight 5% increase over last year.

That increase may not be enough, if recent events are any indication. The Army is currently investigating the case of 14 soldiers whose diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have been altered so that they could not receive full disability pensions.

The investigation is ongoing, but if true, it would have troubling implications for all war veterans. Studies show that 10% to 20% of the 2.3 million troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 suffer from PTSD. Lifetime treatment costs for veterans with PTSD are estimated at $1.5 million.

These costs add up, but they are still nothing compared to the costs of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s war budget for fiscal year 2012 is $115 billion – over $2 billion per week. So while we are trying to cut corners in veterans’ care, the war budget has escaped scrutiny.

Take Afghan security funding for example. Since 2001 the US has spent $52 billion training and equipping the Afghan national security forces. Officials say that the majority of these costs were for startup, and that future costs will be much lower – $5.7 billion in 2013 compared to $11.2 billion in 2012. Still, Afghanistan, with its $18 billion GDP, will be unable to cover the costs of security forces for quite some time.

So what have we gotten for $52 billion, plus unknown future costs? Only 18% of Afghan troops and police can read at a first-grade level. Pentagon officials estimate that 1% of Afghan units can operate without NATO assistance. Desertion rates are increasing. Equipment is being sold by Afghan forces in Pakistani bazaars. Perhaps the most sobering statistic: between 2005 and 2011, 52 US and allied troops were killed by their Afghan counterparts. Just this past week two more US soldiers were killed by a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform.

Clearly something about the way we’re investing in Afghanistan just isn’t working. It’s time to develop a more cost-effective strategy, that starts with bringing US troops home. Saving by winding down the war. Cutting costs by ending wasteful spending on the Afghanistan war certainly makes more sense than cutting costs in caring for our veterans.

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