How much will “victory” in Afghanistan cost?
After eleven years, more than $570 billion, and no end in sight, it seems clear that the U.S. needs a new strategy for Afghanistan. But some are still arguing that we are winning the war in Afghanistan, and that all we need to achieve our goals is stay the course.
Of course, from one perspective, the U.S. has already won in Afghanistan. The original goal was to disrupt and dismantle the al Qaeda network. The U.S. achieve this goal relatively quickly. In 2010, then CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated that the number of al Qaeda in Afghanistan totaled “maybe 50 to 100, maybe less.”
Since 2010, the U.S. has spent over $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan. In 2012 the war cost $110 billion. That’s about $2 billion per week, or over $1 billion for each member of al Qaeda that may still be in Afghanistan.
We stayed in Afghanistan long after our original goals had been accomplished. The mission changed.
We went to Afghanistan to protect U.S. national security. We stayed to nation-build.
The nation-building plan was deeply flawed. Its architects lacked a basic understanding of the region’s historical and cultural background, the key actors and dynamics at play. The idea that the counterinsurgency campaign could root out the Taliban, establish an effective central government and competent security forces, and stabilize the economy was overly ambitious.
Tactically, the U.S. plan also missed the mark. The cornerstone of the U.S. plan for Afghanistan is the Afghan national security forces, who will take the lead in the counterinsurgency after coalition forces withdraw. Military planners focused on the rapid expansion of the force. Today, the Afghan army and police have almost achieved their target number — but their capabilities remain in serious doubt.
The “quantity over quality” strategy left Afghans with a massive, but corrupt and incompetent security force. It also cost U.S. taxpayers over $50 billion.
When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, the question isn’t whether we are winning. The question is what we’re trying to achieve, and whether the goal is worth the costs.
Maybe the nation-building experiment in Afghanistan will succeed, but only at an unacceptable price. The U.S. cannot afford to spend another eleven years and another $570 billion.
With a national debt of over $16 trillion, spending billions on the war in Afghanistan doesn’t make sense. It’s time to bring that money home and build the U.S. economy, rather than nation-building halfway around the world.