Wars End, but War Costs Continue

The Afghanistan War will end eventually, the troops will come home, and the United States taxpayer will start saving billions a week. However, U.S. operations in Afghanistan will continue to be a significant expense long after the troops come home.

We can look to Iraq as an example. The last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, three months into fiscal year 2012. In FY12, we budgeted over $14 billion for operations in Iraq—that includes Department of Defense funding ($9.6 billion) as well as Department of State and foreign aid ($4.8 billion).

The fiscal year 2013 request is much less than that, but still significant—about $7.6 billion. $2.9 billion is for DOD’s “reset of equipment from deploying in Iraq.” Assuming reset costs decline steadily, that still leaves over $5 billion for State and foreign aid. Further, assuming we continue to maintain a diplomatic presence in Iraq, that $5 billion per year will likely continue.

There’s every reason to believe that the transition from DOD to State,soldiers to civilians, in Afghanistan will be at least as expensive. For one, Afghanistan already gets more in foreign aid than Iraq—$2.3 billion in 2012. Assuming the civilian presence expands as U.S. diplomats replace soldiers, the Department of State in Afghanistan will increase too.

On top of diplomatic operations and State-funded foreign aid, Afghanistan gets a big chunk of change through the Department of Defense. The Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund and the Commander’s Emergency Response Program came to $800 million in 2012. Since these funds are for Afghanistan reconstruction projects, they may continue after U.S. troops leave.

Then there is the small matter of training and equipping the Afghanistan Security Forces. The 2013 DOD request is $5.7 billion, a big drop from $11.2 in 2012. Considering Afghanistan’s financial situation, local security forces will likely rely on foreign funds for many years—meaning $5 billion per year is about what we can expect to pay for the next several years to support Afghan’s security forces.

We still haven’t even gotten to the one big question: what about U.S. troops? If you thought that all U.S. troops will be leaving Afghanistan by 2014, think again. The administration has consistently emphasized 2014 deadline, the date agreed to at the Lisbon summit, as the deadline for transitioning to a training role, meaning local forces will take the lead in combat. By and large U.S. officials have stuck to that date, with a few hints of starting to transition early and ending by 2013.

Here’s the catch: the U.S. combat mission may end in 2014, but that doesn’t mean all troops will leave. The majority of the 68,000 left may come home by 2014. However there is considerable support for leaving anywhere from 10,000 to 35,000 troops to serve as trainers and advisors to the Afghan National Security Forces. The costs associated with maintaining a military presence after 2014 are unclear, but it won’t be cheap.

There are good arguments to be made for leaving military advisors and for maintaining a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. But that argument must be made in a budget context, because whatever we decide, we’ll have to pay for it.

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