Costs of Nation Building

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Brandy Bates stops to talk with Afghan children during a foot patrol through Tughay village in the Sangin district of Afghanistan's Helmand province on Dec. 6, 2011

The resignation of CIA Director General David Petraeus as head of the CIA last Friday led many to reflect on the legacy of the man who led U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.

Bing West, assistant Secretary of Defense for President Reagan, had this to say about Gen. Petraeus and Afghanistan:

“Gen. Petraeus’s concept of nation building as a military mission probably will not endure. Our military can train the armed forces of others (if they are willing) and, in Afghanistan, we can leave behind a cadre to destroy nascent terrorist havens. But American soldiers don’t know how to build Minneapolis or Memphis, let alone Muslim nations.”

West pinpointed one of the fundamental flaws of nation-building. U.S. troops are most capable in the world, but they are trained for combat, not building roads and distributing food aid.

There’s another big problem with nation-building in Afghanistan: it is very expensive. And with the a national debt of over $16 trillion, the U.S. cannot afford to spend billions more on the war in Afghanistan.

War costs ramped up significantly as the U.S. mission in Afghanistan expanded. From 2001 to 2006, spending on the war did not exceed $20 billion per year. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, war costs were over $100 billion per year.

As U.S. combat troops leave Afghanistan, war funding will decline, but not as much as you might expect. The Pentagon’s request for operations in Afghanistan in 2013 is $85.6 billion, or $1.6 billion per week.

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 is still unclear. But if 20,000 troops remain, a plan that some members of Congress support, war costs could top $25 billion per year for years to come.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is facing a fierce budget debate at home. With a national debt of over $16 trillion, finding ways to cut back government spending is critical. The Pentagon is already facing significant budget reductions of $487 billion over the next ten years, plus another $500 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts if Congress fails to agree on a budget deal before January.

The war has already cost over $580 billion. Spending billions more on nation-building in Afghanistan, while the U.S. economy is still recovering, doesn’t make sense.

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