Open-ended commitment to Afghanistan will cost taxpayers billions

In the Chicago Summit Declaration issued this past Sunday, NATO leaders committed to ending the combat mission in Afgahnistan in 2014, as they agreed at the 2010 Lisbon summit. They also made a commitment “to support Afghanistan in its Transformation Decade beyond 2014,” including financial support for the Afghan National Security forces.

The declaration leaves  a lot of unanswered questions about the NATO’s future strategy in Afghanistan. How many troops will stay “to train and support” Afghan forces after 2014? How much will NATO members commit to maintaining the Afghan Security Forces? Will it be enough to keep the ANSF at target levels and is the target level sustainable?

President Obama reportedly went into the summit looking for answers to some of these questions, particularly a financial commitment from other NATO members for the ANSF. His failure to secure specific commitment is largely unsurprising. After all, other NATO countries face the same difficulties in developing a plan for Afghanistan that the U.S. faces (e.g, domestic politics, regional dynamics). The simple fact is that making a ten-year commitment is hard; keeping it vague is much easier.

The vague commitments and unanswered questions in the NATO declaration are the same in U.S. policy. The Strategic Framework signed by President Obama and Afghan President Karzai says the U.S. will withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014, and commits U.S. support for the next ten years, but the agreement is silent on most of the details.

It may be understandable that NATO leaders, with all their different pressures and interests, failed to come up with a clear strategy. However, U.S. policymakers don’t have the same excuse. By sticking to the 2014 timetable, the administration is ignoring the American public, most of whom do not support the war.

Of course, Obama’s rival is not much better on Afghanistan policy. Gov. Mitt Romney has criticized the president for setting a deadline for withdrawing combat troops. But the alternative to a timeline is an open-ended commitment. As Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz writes, “open-ended means decades and hundreds of thousands of troops in Afghanistan”— as well as hundreds of billions of dollars, on top of the $560 billion already spent.

Congress is no better at listening to public opinion. The American public is tired of wasteful defense spending, and the war in Afghanistan in particular, the House of Representatives just voted for a defense bill that exceeds, by $8 billion, the cap on defense spending that Congress agreed to as part of the Budget Control Act last August. Representatives voted against an amendment to speed up the drawdown and approved an amendment to maintain 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2014.

Fiscal conservatives are always saying we need to rein in wasteful government spending. Where are the fiscal conservatives when it comes to ending the wasteful war in Afghanistan?

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