Published: June 5th, 2012
In poll after poll the American public has said the Afghanistan war is not worth the costs. They have called for removing U.S. troops as soon as possible. They have supported cutting war costs by an average of 43%.
Where do policymakers stand on this issue? It’s hard to say. Unlike their constituents, who have spoken so strongly in favor of ending the war, many elected officials are silent.
There are notable exceptions. Representatives Timothy Johnson (R-IL), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Walter Jones (R-NC) have led the way in calling for an end to the Afghanistan war. Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Jim Webb (D-VA) have introduced legislation to implement the oversight reforms recommended by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which found that as much as $60 billion has been lost to contract waste and fraud in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Unfortunately, these legislators are in the minority. Other members of Congress consistently overlook Afghanistan, even working actively to extend the war. In their version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization bill, the House voted to sustain the war, voting down an amendment that would limit funds to the “safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and military contractors from Afghanistan.” Another amendment to accelerate the drawdown didn’t even make it to a vote; the House Rules Committee refused to allow it to be debated.
While House members try to extend the war, some Senators are simply ignoring it. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein notes that of the 16 Republican candidates likely to win Senate seats, 15 do not even mention the war on their campaign sites.
The Afghanistan war likely will not be a driving issue this election season. But it should be. The war has cost over $500 billion over the past ten years, and will cost close to $100 billion in the 2013 alone. Americans believe there are better uses for taxpayer dollars. Some members of Congress may disagree, but rather than debate the issue, they are sweeping it under the rug. By quietly supporting the status quo, policymakers are spending billions on the war without justifying their strategy to the taxpayers who are underwriting it.
The Afghanistan war is too big, and too costly, to be ignored. The American public understands this. It’s time for fiscal conservatives to show they understand it too.
Published: May 28th, 2012
The president has requested close to $10 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction next year. If Congress approves the request, that will bring the total amount of U.S. reconstruction aid to Afghanistan to $100 billion since 2002, according to the latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. That averages out to a little over $8 billion each year.
$8 billion is a lot of money. It’s $2 billion more than Congress needs to find to avoid raising student loan interest rates. It’s more than three times what the Department of Energy spent last year on vital nuclear nonproliferation programs, and it’s four times the amount the Veterans Health Administration spent to provide medical care to recent combat veterans in 2010.
Some U.S. aid money has been well spent. The literacy rates among the Afghan National Security Forces, for example, has almost tripled since 2009.
But a lot of the $100 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars spent on Afghanistan aid has been misspent. A former senior auditor for SIGAR estimates that only 15% of aid dollars makes it to the intended recipient. The rest is lost to waste and corruption or eaten up by overhead costs. For the U.S., that means $85 billion has been wasted in Afghanistan.
Slashing aid to Afghanistan (as the Senate Appropriations committee recently did, cutting the president’s request by 28%) isn’t necessarily the answer. Doing something on a smaller scale does not mean you’re doing it better.
It’s not simply a matter of changing how much we invest; we must change the way we invest. By making each aid dollar more effective, we will spend less and get real results.
What does this mean in practical terms? There are a lot of recommendations for making Afghanistan aid more effective. Improving congressional oversight would be a good start. Cracking down on wartime contracting abuses is also essential. And focusing on economic development – promoting investment in local infrastructure, providing subsidies and technical assistance to local agricultural producers, and helping Afghan women directly through micro-lending and education programs – would also be smart.
$85 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars has already been wasted. Billions more are at risk, unless the current course changes.
Published: May 22nd, 2012
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?
Published: May 15th, 2012
Every recent opinion poll confirms declining public support for the war. A March Washington Post poll finds that 60% of respondents believe the war has not been worth the costs. 72% say they oppose the war and 77% want to withdraw all U.S. troops in 2014 or earlier, according to a March CNN poll. An April poll from The Christian Science Monitor finds that 63% of respondents do not support the recently announced US-Afghan Strategic Agreement, which commits the U.S. to ten years of aid and military support for Afghanistan.
The downward trend shows that Americans are responding to mounting evidence that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan just isn’t working. Each year since 2001 the U.S. has spent an average of $45 billion on the Afghanistan war. Troop levels peaked at about 101,000 in 2010; today some 90,000 U.S. troops are still deployed in Afghanistan. U.S. casualties number close to 2,000, including 378 deaths since the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
With the primary goal – dismantling al-Qaeda – accomplished, we continue nation-building in a country where there is no basic security. IED attacks set a record high in 2011. Questions about the capability of the Afghan Security Forces persist. Billions of dollars invested in aid projects are abandoned because the Afghan government cannot afford to pay for them.
It has become clear, at least to the American public, that we are wasting our resources. But still, some members of Congress persist in advocating for sustaining, or even expanding, our role in Afghanistan. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), for example, believes “bringing these 20,000 troops home this year is too soon,” and has called for U.S. troops to replace local security forces who guard U.S. facilities in Afghanistan. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-NC), who supports keeping 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan past 2014, insists that “We have made progress, and we do have strong allies within Afghanistan
Congress’ latest effort to prolong the war is the 2013 Department of Defense authorization bill, recently passed by the House Armed Services Committee. The HASC bill includes a provision to maintain 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2014, and “maintain a credible troop presence after December 31, 2014, sufficient to conduct counter-terrorism and train and advise the Afghan National Security Forces.” This plan would cost billions of dollars, not to mention the lives of U.S. soldiers.
Not all members of Congress are tied to a losing strategy in Afghanistan. Some, like Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) have actively worked for an accelerated drawdown and greater oversight of U.S. spending in Afghanistan. Thus far these efforts have failed, and the gap between a public that wants to end the war and policymakers determined to sustain it continues.
Published: May 11th, 2012
Pentagon officials and pundits enjoy telling us that if we stay the course we can still win the war in Afghanistan. This argument directly contradicts the facts. Ten years and over $500 billion later, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working. This strategy doesn’t require more patience – or more blood and treasure. It needs to be changed.
However, Defense Department officials are sticking to the company line. Every year DOD reports to Congress on progress in Afghanistan. This year’s report, released last week, was largely overlooked, partly because of media flurry surrounding the US-Afghan Strategic Agreement, and partly because there’s really no news here – the new report sounds very similar to previous reports.
“We continue to build on that progress [made since last year’s report]. Challenges remain.” said Assistant Secretary of Defense Captain John Kirby. In other words, DOD says that the strategy is working – if we keep funding the war, we just might win.
Defense officials are backed up by analysts who argue that “with patience on all sides, we can still reach a tolerable outcome.” Of course, supporters of extending the war rarely mention that their policy recommendations will cost billions of dollars and the lives of U.S. soldiers.
The current strategy isn’t just expensive; it’s also ineffective. IED attacks set a record high last year. Millions of dollars are being wasted on unsustainable reconstruction projects. Afghan soldiers are turning on NATO counterparts. Most disturbingly, the real news about the Afghanistan war doesn’t make it back to the American public.
Despite efforts to hide the fact that there’s been no real progress, Americans know a failed strategy when they see one. The latest public opinion poll shows that two-thirds of respondents disapprove of the US-Afghan Strategic Agreement, which commits billions of aid dollars to Afghanistan and allows for a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for the next ten years.
Ten years is long enough. Rather than wasting another $500 billion on an unnecessary war, we should be investing in programs that really matter.
Published: April 30th, 2012
The title of this audit report, the latest from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, says it all: USAID spent almost $400 million on an Afghanistan reconstruction project despite uncertain results.
The Local Governance and Community Development program, first approved in 2006,
was intended to help the Afghan government reach out into remote districts, encourage local communities to participate in development projects, and “create incentives for stability in critical border provinces.”
The program was supposed to last for three years and had a budget of no more than $150 million. However, USAID extended the program for two years past the deadline, and the total costs came close to $400 million – more than two and a half times the original amount.
The Local Governance and Community Development program wasn’t extended because it was an astonishing success. In fact, assessments by USAID and others indicated that the program produced mixed results. And an independent evaluation concluded that “although the project had pockets of success, it had not met its overarching goal of extending the legitimacy of the Afghan government.”
The program was also beset by delays and cost increases. SIGAR found that less than half of the amounts awarded to contractors by USAID went to reconstruction projects; the rest was eaten up by overhead costs.
Despite these concerns, and despite difficulty USAID encountered in determining if the program was effective or not, USAID continued to extend the program and increase its budget.
When a boondoggle like this is allowed to continue unchecked, it makes us wonder about other Afghanistan reconstruction projects. The Local Governance and Community Development program accounted for about one-third of total amount – $1.1 billion – that USAID has spent on Afghanistan reconstruction. What happened to the other $700 million? Were other aid projects just as ineffective as this one?
Published: April 23rd, 2012
The US and Afghanistan have completed an outline of the US commitment to Afghanistan for the next ten years, the New York Times reports. The specifics haven’t been worked out yet, but if we continue down the same path, the deal could end up costing US taxpayers billions of dollars.
Funding for the Afghan security forces alone promises to be costly. The US is reportedly considering a commitment of anywhere from $2.3 billion to $4.1 billion per year, for a ten year total of $20 billion to $40 billion. Add to that the cost of maintaining US advisors for the Afghan.s The Congressional Budget Office estimates that going down to 45,000 troops by 2015 will bring war costs close to $500 billion through 2022.
Pouring billions of dollars into an unpopular war just doesn’t make sense. The US is about to make a multi-billion dollar commitment to the war in Afghanistan; at the same time we are cutting back spending on important defense and domestic programs. This level of spending is clearly unsustainable. How is Afghanistan, with domestic revenues of less than $2 billion per year, supposed to pay for security forces that cost more than $2 billion after the US leaves? They are not; we are.
Of course, there’s something to be said for making an explicit long-term commitment to Afghanistan. After all, the end of the US combat mission does not mean the end of our relationship with Afghanistan. However, we need a new roadmap for engagement—not just a downsized version of the current strategy, but a strategy that is effective, efficient, and sustainable.
Published: April 17th, 2012
The Taliban launched a series of attacks yesterday on embassies and the Afghan Parliament in Kabul. The offensive is reportedly “among the most audacious coordinated terrorist attacks here in recent years,” yet US officials say they are determined to stay the course. The American public is less confident, however.
In fact, public support for the war in Afghanistan is at an all-time low. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 66% of respondents say the war has not been worth the costs, compared to only 30% who say it has. This represents a significant change from 2007, when 56% said the war has been worth fighting, and 41% said the opposite.
The downward trend is especially interesting because war costs have actually started to decrease. U.S. casualties, on the rise since 2005, dropped 18% over the last year. The Department of Defense request for next year’s war costs, $88.5 billion, is a 26% decrease from last year.
Still, we are spending too much in Afghanistan, and getting too little for it. The American public knows this. After spending over half a trillion dollars to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, 62% of Americans say most Afghans oppose what the U.S. is trying to do in Afghanistan.
Published: December 19th, 2011
Author: Mary Kaszynski
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger
If you had to choose which country is the most strategically important – Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran – you might have a hard time deciding.
On the one hand we have Pakistan: Population 175 million, the sixth largest in the world. An unstable civilian government facing off with a powerful military. A haven for insurgents – not to mention Osama bin Laden – who attack US troops across the border in Afghanistan. The extent to which Pakistani officials are complicit is unclear, although former JCS Chair Adm. Mike Mullen called the ISI “the virtual arm” of the Haqqani network. Comments like these from both countries, combined with incidents like the NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, have US-Pakistan relations at an all-time low. Finally, there’s the little matter of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which numbers some 100 weapons.
On the other hand we have Iran, a smaller country, but arguably more unstable and potentially threatening. Jon Huntsman called Iran’s nuclear ambitions “the transcendent issue of this decade from a foreign policy standpoint.” Hyperbole? Perhaps. But there’s no question that preventing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is important.
That leaves Afghanistan. When Newt Gingrich called Afghanistan “the least important of the three countries,” no one remarked – because everyone is thinking the same thing. The US has already achieved its primary strategic objectives in Afghanistan; it is no longer our fight.
This leaves us with something of a puzzle. Afghanistan represents little in terms of srategic importance – and yet 90,000 US troops are still stationed there. We have spent over one trillion dollars on the wars, and will spend $100 billion next year. War spending is a main driver of the current financial crisis.
As one wasteful war winds down, it’s worth thinking about what our national security interests really are. Building our economy – that is vital to our national security. So is preventing Iran from building a bomb as well as preventing the dangerous situation with Pakistan from spiralling out of control. Compared to goals like these, nation-building in Afghanistan seems trivial.
Look at it another way. An American official told New York Times’ Bill Keller: “If you stand back and say, by the year 2020, you’ve got two countries [Afghanistan and Pakistan]— 30 million people in this country, 200 million people with nuclear weapons in this country, American troops in neither. Which matters? It’s not Afghanistan.”
In thirty years, will we look back and be glad that we spent $100 billion on Afghanistan in 2012? Or will we regret such vast expenditure in Afghanistan that was not commensurate with regional priorities?
Published: December 9th, 2011
Author: Mary Kaszynski
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger
Two foreign invasions for a total of three decades of war have largely taken their toll on Afghanistan infrastructure – there isn’t much left. And what remains is only partially usable, according to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Building Afghanistan’s infrastructure has been a centerpiece of US efforts, for both security reasons and to encourage economic development. However, what was there before the U.S. stepped in?
The GAO estimates that in late 2001 about 16% of Afghanistan’s roads were paved, compared to 80% in neighboring countries. Approximately 31%, or $16 billion, in US aid to Afghanistan since 2001 has gone towards economic, social, and political development efforts, according to the Congressional Research Service. As much as 25% of USAID’s Afghanistan budget goes specifically to road construction, to which the DOD has also contributed over $500 million through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, a flexible fund for small reconstruction projects.
There are some positive indications in the quest to improve Afghanistan’s infrastructure – for example, as of September 2008, USAID had built or repaired over 1,600 miles of road. However, the challenges are far more numerous. Lack of transparency and insufficient interagency cooperation have plagued US efforts. Questions have been raised in particular about poor of oversight for the CERP program, which was originally intended for small projects, but has been increasingly used to fund large-scale projects.
Some construction projects are even counterproductive. For example, the Great Wall of Kandahar. This infrastructure project may alleniate the local population more than protect it, thus ultimately setting back the war effort and wasting taxpayer dollars.
The waste will continue after construction is completed, because many of these projects are unsustainable. GAO estimates that 90% of Afghanistan’s budget comes from foreign aid, meaning that the US and other countries will be picking up the tab for building and maintaining Afghanistan’s infrastructure for quite some time.
Afghanistan estimates they will continue to need outside aid until 2025. The U.S. taxpayers have already contributed significant funds to Afghanistan infrastructure. Monies that could have been utilized to help our own lagging economy and crumbling infrastructure. In this time of necessary austerity how much more can we contribute to Afghanistan without negative consequences here at home?