Published: February 6th, 2013
Congress has appropriated close to $90 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction projects, but the U.S. has yet to see a return on the investment. The latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found “delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects…[that] resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste.”
Some of the highlights of SIGAR’s investigation into U.S. reconstruction efforts over the past year include $12.8 million in electrical equipment that is sitting unused; $6.3 million paid to maintain Afghan Army vehicles that had been destroyed; and a $400 million for a governance project that actually set back counterinsurgency efforts.
Most recently, SIGAR found that the U.S. $1.1 billion spent on fuel for the Afghan Army — fuel that may have come from Iran, in violation of U.S. sanctions.
These incidents were uncovered recently, but they follow troubling pattern. As the report notes, “SIGAR’s work since 2009 has repeatedly identified problems in every area of the reconstruction effort — from inadequate planning, insufficient coordination, and poor execution, to lack of meaningful metrics to measure progress.”
More than ten years since the Afghanistan war began, U.S. has not resolved persistent problems in reconstruction efforts. As the military drawdown progresses, billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are at risk.
The steady stream of aid to Afghanistan is expected to slow in the coming years. But the U.S. and allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining the Afghan security forces is expected to come to over $4 billion per year.
The IMF and World Bank report that Afghanistan’s ability to close the gap between domestic revenue and spending “is becoming a more distant goal, likely to be reached only after 2032.” In the meantime, the U.S. and allies may have to cover the balance.
Expensive, unsustainable reconstruction projects have become a burden not just to Afghanistan’s economy, but to U.S. taxpayers as well. Moving forward, SIGAR writes, “lawmakers and Executive Branch agencies have an opportunity to conduct a strategic reexamination of reconstruction issues.” Policymakers owe it to the Americans to take advantage of this opportunity by ensuring that taxpayer dollars are not wasted in Afghanistan.
Published: January 28th, 2013
“The true cost of the [Afghanistan] war is only just beginning,” Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes recently wrote in Financial Times. “Indeed, the costs after withdrawal may exceed those during the war. Choices made in the past decade mean high costs for years to come – and will constrain other national security spending.”
Stiglitz, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, and Bilmes, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, are no strangers to the concept of hidden and delayed war costs. In 2008 they authored a groundbreaking study showing that the Iraq war, officially counted at $800 billion, would likely cost on the order of $3 trillion.
The same thing will happen in Afghanistan, the authors of The Three Trillion Dollar War write. The direct cost of the war has already topped $600 billion. Ongoing military operations will bring that total to at least $700 billion through 2014.
Even after U.S. forces transition from a combat to a training and advising role, the financial burden of the war will continue. Stiglitz and Bilmes highlight some of the big costs, like caring for the veterans of the Afghanistan war (total estimated cost: $1 trillion); supporting the Afghan security forces ($5 billion to $8 billion per year).
U.S. aid to Afghanistan is also sure to be a significant issue. Congress has already appropriated close to $90 billion — over $50 billion for security assistance and close to $40 billion for economic and humanitarian reconstruction. Despite this significant investment, the Afghan security forces remain largely incapable of operating independently of U.S. and allied trainers. Meanwhile, billions of aid dollars have been wasted on unneeded and unsustainable projects, or simply lost to fraud and corruption.
Congress is taking small steps to increase transparency and accountability in U.S. aid to Afghanistan. But it may be too little too late.
“In all of their nation’s history, Afghans have never seen such wealth or experienced such beneficence as the West is providing now,” writes Pulitzer prize winner Joel Brinkley. “But instead of creating a model program of nation building, all of that has badly distorted the economy and the people’s expectations.”
In Afghanistan, the U.S. strategy has created an aid bubble and made little sustainable progress on the security front. In the U.S., the war has been a drag on the economy, driving up the projected national debt.
“The legacy of poor decision-making from the expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will live on in a continued drain on our economy – long after the last troop returns to American soil,” Stiglitz and Bilmes conclude.
Is it too late to address the effect the Afghanistan war will have on the U.S. economy? Maybe, there are certainly some steps we can take. The first one is ending the Afghanistan war and developing a new strategy for more effective (and less costly) engagement with Afghanistan. Another essential step is reining in government spending (and the out-of-control defense budget in particular). These won’t be easy steps, but they are crucial if we want to get our fiscal house in order.
Published: December 4th, 2012
The story of Combat Outpost Keating is perhaps one of the most tragic of the Afghanistan war. The U.S. camp was located in a remote area of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, at the base of three mountains — a nearly indefensible position — defend the position, at great expense by U.S. forces, for over three years.
In October 2009, Taliban forces attacked Outpost Keating. U.S. troops, outnumbered seven to one, defended the post, but sustained heavy casualties. Of 53, 8 died and 22 were wounded, making the battle one of the deadliest for U.S. forces in the Afghanistan war.
Combat Outpost Keating is the subject of ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper’s recent book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. Tapper recently discussed the book on The Colbert Report.
The real tragedy, he said, is that “Despite some successes in three and a half years of the camp, by the end its only purpose really was its own self-defense.” American forces withdrew from Combat Outpost Keating shortly after that deadly battle in 2009; the war continued. A Pentagon investigation later concluded there was “no strategic purpose” for the camp.
Outpost Keating was the direct result of the flawed U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. In fact, The way the U.S. has carried out the war may have created more problems than it solved.
Take the surge strategy for example. In late 2009 the administration announced a plan to send an additional 33,000 troops to support the 68,000 already stationed in Afghanistan. Over the next several years U.S. troop levels increased, then the additional forces were gradually withdrawn. The last of the surge troop left Afghanistan two months ago, bringing us back to the 2009 level.
The Afghanistan surge was supposed to help eliminate and suppress the insurgency. Instead, the opposite happened. From 2009 to 2012, the number of enemy initiated attacks increased, according to the military’s own figures.
The limits of a strategy that relies too much on troop levels has been clear to the American public for some time. Opinion polls show support for the at all-time lows. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, 66 percent think the costs of the war in Afghanistan outweigh the benefits. 60 percent of respondents support withdrawing troops as soon as possible, according to an October Pew poll.
Of course, there are still some holdouts, some who refuse to see that ten years, $500 billion, and little progress adds up to a bad strategy. A recent op-ed called for keeping 30,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
Maintaining a military presence of that size would likely cost over $30 billion per year, based on expert estimates. With a national debt of over $16 trillion, the U.S. can’t afford to continue a war most Americans don’t support.
Instead of spending billions in Afghanistan, we should be focusing on building the U.S. economy. $30 billion would go a long way towards repairing decaying infrastructure or rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy.
Better yet, instead of prolonging the war, maybe we should be investing in programs to care for the veterans who served in places like Outpost Camp Keating.
Published: November 20th, 2012
The U.S. and Afghanistan began talks last week over the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, news sources report. The talks, which will tackle thorny questions like immunity for U.S. troops and the number of that will remain in the country, could last up to a year.
These talks are have important implications for the winding down of U.S. combat operations and the beginning of the next phase of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. But the U.S.-Afghanistan negotiations are unlikely to make the front page. With so much attention on the Petraeus scandal and Benghazi investigation, the war in Afghanistan will likely continue to go unnoticed.
Overlooking the war in Afghanistan is a mistake, and one that will cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars.
Many Americans seem to believe that the war in Afghanistan is over. This is an understandable mistake; most policymakers don’t talk about the fact that 68,000 U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.
Many also forget about the war because they believe it will end soon. In fact, the U.S. has committed to withdrawing its 68,000 combat troops by the end of 2014, over two years from now. The pace of the drawdown is still undecided, as is the number of U.S. military trainers and special operations forces that will remain after 2014.
The large U.S. military presence has come at a high price: $13.2 billion per month in 2011, $10.5 billion per month billion in 2012, and an estimated $8.1 billion per month in 2013, according to administration budget figures.
Experts say sustaining 20,000 troops could cost $25 billion per year. Adding several billion each year for security and economic aid, and annual war costs could reach $30 billion. War costs, already nearing $600 billion, will continue to add up over the next several years.
Congress will play a key role in reining in wasteful spending in Afghanistan. Already some who previously supported continuing the war have recognized the ineffectiveness of the current strategy and called for an accelerated drawdown.
Other members of Congress, however, continue to believe that a large military presence will solve Afghanistan’s problems. They equate withdrawal with retreat, believing that more troops and more money will somehow lead to victory.
In fact, the past eleven years have shown that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been counterproductive. When the U.S. increased troop levels, insurgent attacks increased. When the U.S. poured billions of dollars into unsustainable projects, it created an aid bubble that will burst when international funding dries up.
If U.S. policymakers don’t step up and fix the wasteful strategy in Afghanistan, U.S. taxpayers will end up paying the price.
Published: November 14th, 2012
A recent insurgent attack brings the total number of fatalities of international forces in Afghanistan to 10 this month. The attack follows a spate of attacks last week that left 20 dead. Meanwhile,officials are discussing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, with a decision on troop numbers expected within weeks, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Costs of Nation Building
Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski
Nation-building is 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.
Decision on Afghanistan Deployment Nearing, Panetta Says
New York Times by Elisabeth Bumiller
White House and Pentagon officials hope to determine within weeks the number of American troops that will remain for the long term in Afghanistan after the bulk of United States forces come home in 2014, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday.
Deficit cutters look to Defense Dept. budget
Associated Press by Donna Cassata
The days of staunch defense hawks in Congress easily turning back efforts to cut military spending are gone as war fatigue even has reached the fiercest guardians of military spending.
Afghan corruption, and how the U.S. facilitates it
Washington Post by Walter Pincus
When it comes to corruption in Afghanistan, the time may be now for the United States to look in the mirror and see what lessons can be learned from contracting out parts of that war.
The carnage of war
CT Post by Robert Stokes
As we pause to honor our veterans this Nov. 11, it is imperative that all Americans be reminded of the terrible human price that has been paid – and will continue to be paid in the future – by U.S. troops who fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
As America’s longest war drags on, costs mount for Alabamians
AL.com by Jon Solomon
Aside from the human toll, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have carried financial costs. By one measure, the share of war spending since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom borne by the state’s residents and businesses exceeds $11.7 billion.
Published: October 30th, 2012
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.
Published: August 1st, 2012
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction was established by Congress in 2008 “promote economy and efficiency of U.S.-funded reconstruction programs in Afghanistan.” Overseeing the billions of dollars the U.S. spends in Afghanistan each year keeps SIGAR busy.
The Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, the subject of SIGAR’s latest audit report, is the perfect example of the kind of waste and mismanagement that keeps the government watchdog in business.
The Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund was created in fiscal year 2011. Before then long-term, large scale infrastructure projects were improperly funded through the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program, an account intended for small, short projects.
Congress appropriated $400 million for the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund (AIF) in 2011 and 2012, for a total of $800 million. The goal of the projects funded under AIF was to support the COIN strategy—that is, to win hearts and minds.
The SIGAR investigation into AIF found a number of significant problems. First, most of the infrastructure projects examined are 6 to 15 months behind schedule. Worse, SIGAR finds that “the scale of most projects means that these agencies will not achieve the planned contributions to the COIN strategy described in the fiscal year 2011 congressional notification for several years.”
The real damning conclusion, however, is this: “In some instances, these projects may result in adverse COIN effects because they create an expectations gap among the affected population or lack citizen support.” [emphasis added]
In other words, the massive amounts of aid the U.S. has sent to Afghanistan may actually be counterproductive.
The SIGAR report captures the fundamental problem with the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. That strategy is not informed by an understanding of Afghan culture, politics, or history. It’s not even informed by human nature.
For U.S. planners, winning hearts and minds meant spending billions on unsustainable aid projects. That didn’t win hearts and minds, but it did create a culture of entitlement.
It’s too late to get back the many years and billions of dollars the U.S. has wasted on an ill-conceived strategy in Afghanistan. But it’s not too late to craft a strategy for moving forward—a strategy that takes into account U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan and makes limited aid dollars more effective.
Published: June 28th, 2012
The closure of Pakistan’s supply routes last fall caused a spike in the costs of supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan. Now the Pentagon is seeking congressional approval to transfer $100 million per month from other defense programs to the cover increased costs of continuing the war effort. Meanwhile, the news from the ground in Afghanistan is mixed. Poppy production has declined, and the number of U.S. casualties from improvised explosive devices has dropped. But violence continues, particularly in southern Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force reports 3,000 insurgent attacks around the country in May, up 21% from May 2011.
Seeking Responsible Policymakers on Afghanistan
Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski
Many members of Congress, including fiscal conservatives, have dropped the ball on Afghanistan policy. Rather than supporting efforts to wind down the war, Congress has voted to extend it. Rather than working to make every aid dollar count, Congress has dragged their feet on improving aid oversight.
Afghanistan War Strategy During the Surge – Infographic
The New York Times
In 2009 and 2010, the United States increased its troop levels in Afghanistan by 54,000 soldiers. A majority of the first wave of reinforcements was sent to Helmand province instead of neighboring Kandahar, which was deemed to be more important strategically by the then-top U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
10 things you didn’t know about the Afghan war
The Washington Post
In the 1950s, dozens of American engineers built a vast network of irrigation canals aimed at bringing modern agriculture to southern Afghanistan. Six decades later, U.S. Marines fought and died in those same canals as they sought to beat back the Taliban.
Pentagon to seek shifts in spending
Politico by Austin Wright
The Defense Department plans to seek congressional approval to alter its spending to handle billions of dollars in unanticipated costs, including an additional $100 million a month to supply troops in Afghanistan.
Building Bridges in Afghanistan
Time’s Battleland by Mark Thompson
Anyone who has had to live without a bridge in his or her neighborhood for awhile knows just how vital those spans can be. In Afghanistan, it turns out they’re also ripe for corruption and an ideal place to plant improvised explosive devices.
The Folly of Nation Building
The National Interest by Amitai Etzioni
There is a growing consensus that the United States can’t afford another war, or even a major armed humanitarian intervention. But in reality, the cost of war itself is not the critical issue. It is the nation building following many wars that drives up the costs.
Published: June 26th, 2012
Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan”, released today, lends new support to critiques of the Obama administration’s handling of the Afghanistan war. According to Little America, the administration squandered a chance to end the war by sidelining the Special representative for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, ignored the Vice President’s warnings against the counterinsurgency strategy, and dismissed a CIA report that the 30,000 troop surge had little measurable effect.
Little America is not the first source that gives a different perspective on the Afghanistan war than the one regularly portrayed in the media. Earlier this year Lt. Col. Danny Davis wrote in a ground-breaking article for the Armed Forces Journal that policymakers deliberately suppressed negative news about the war, selling the public a sanitized version of what is really going on in Afghanistan.
Chandrasekaran’s work is another window into how our Afghanistan policy went wrong. And it’s a useful reminder of how politics can have costly consequences. According to Little America, the administration’s flawed policy prolonged the war by several years, and cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
After Little America it might feel right to place the blame for the unwinding of the Afghanistan war on the Obama administration. But let’s not forget about the other players here. Congress played, and continues to play, a huge role in U.S. policy on Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, many members of Congress, including fiscal conservatives, have dropped the ball on Afghanistan policy. Rather than supporting efforts to wind down the war, Congress has voted to extend it. Rather than working to make every aid dollar count, Congress has dragged their feet on improving aid oversight. Rather than finding ways to curtail war costs, Congress keeps approving requests to spend billions of dollars on the Afghanistan war each year.
Each week this year the U.S. is spending $2 billion per week on the Afghanistan war. Next year, we will spend be about $1.7 billion per week. Meanwhile, student loan interest rates are about to skyrocket, tax rates will spike starting in January, and out-of-control government spending means the U.S. national debt is approaching $16 trillion.
There are many better uses for taxpayer dollars than the war in Afghanistan. It’s time policymakers started listening to what taxpayers want: bring our troops and tax dollars home.
Published: June 14th, 2012
Amid tensions with Afghanistan over NATO airstrikes that have caused civilian casualties, the U.S. is also facing tense negotiations with Pakistan over supply routes to Afghanistan. Ever since the November 2011 NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan’s supply routes have been closed. The U.S. and Pakistan were reportedly close to a deal to reopen the routes several times, but the U.S. negotiators left Pakistan this Monday without an agreement.
Pentagon officials still hope a deal can be reached. In the meantime, the U.S. must rely on routes through Central Asian countries – routes that cost up to two-and-a-half times more. Defense Secretary Panetta estimates that the Pakistan route closure costs the U.S. a staggering $100 million per month.
War Costs Will Continue After 2014
Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski
The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan may end in by 2014, but that doesn’t mean troops will be coming home. And it certainly doesn’t mean that war costs will end any time soon.
Lawmakers unite in effort to end war in Afghanistan
Army Times by Lance M. Bacon
A bipartisan group of nine lawmakers has enlisted the help of an Army whistle-blower in their determined efforts to bring a swift end to the war in Afghanistan.
Pentagon probes Leonie’s taxes, treatment of Afghan workers
USA Today by Tom Vanden Brook
Pentagon criminal investigators have launched a full probe into the military’s top propaganda contractor in Afghanistan regarding taxes paid by its owners and treatment of its Afghan employees.
Military Will Soon Pay More For Former Soldiers Than Current Ones
U.S. News & World Report by John Bennett
The Pentagon soon will spend more on health care and other benefits for former military personnel than on the men and women fighting today’s conflicts, according to a new study.
US legacy in Afghanistan: What 11 years of war has accomplished
CS Monitor by Scott Baldauf
If Americans correct past mistakes and build on achievements, they still have a chance to leave behind a country that can survive on its own. If past mistakes are repeated, the withdrawal could be a messy one indeed – and may prove an ignoble ending to one of the costlier ventures in modern American history.
Counterinsurgency doctrine fundamentally flawed at outset
Global Post by Jonathan Moore
COIN extends US military beyond its competence by making it try to build a cohesive nation in Afghanistan.