1. Billions of Dollars at Risk in U.S. Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan

    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.

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  2. Wasteful War Strategy Persists

    Published: December 24th, 2012

    U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, second from right, the new commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, visits with U.S., NATO and Afghan forces at checkpoint 91 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, July 9, 2010

    The U.S. is looking to shift its military strategy in Afghanistan, moving from a combat role to training and advising the Afghan security forces. The Wall Street Journal reports that the shift could be implemented next year.

    Despite being billed as a changed strategy, this move is really just a clarification of the current strategy. The U.S. plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014, letting Afghan security forces take the lead role for ongoing counterinsurgency operations.

    If the transition from U.S. and allied forces to local forces begins next year, some of the 66,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Afghanistan may be withdrawn earlier. If the transition is undertaken closer to the 2014 deadline, some troops may stay longer.

    The “shift” in the U.S. strategy is less a shift than a hint at the drawdown timeline for the next two years. An accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops would be good first step, but it falls short of what is needed: a reevaluation of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

    The current strategy relies on a heavy military footprint today and the capabilities of the Afghan security forces tomorrow. But reliance on military force hasn’t solved Afghanistan’s security problems. In fact, there is clear evidence that increasing troop levels actually contributes to an increase in the number of insurgent attacks.

    As for the second piece of the strategy — the Afghan security forces, which are supposed take the lead in 2014 — U.S. training efforts seem to have fallen short. Congress has allocated over $50 billion in security aid to Afghanistan since 2002. The funds support programs to train and equip local Afghan forces.

    Despite the billions invested in Afghanistan’s security forces, serious doubts about their capabilities remain. According to a Pentagon report released just last week, only one of the Afghan Army’s 23 brigades can operate without support from the U.S. and allies.

    Focusing on the training mission in won’t solve the fundamental problems with the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. After eleven years and more than $500 billion, it’s time for U.S. leaders to eliminate wasteful war spending and develop a strategy that works.

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  3. Growing Momentum for Ending the War in Afghanistan

    Published: December 10th, 2012

    U.S. Marines board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft flight from Camp Manas, Krygzstan, to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, March 24, 2010

    It’s no secret that public support for the war in Afghanistan is fading. According to a recent opinion poll, 66 percent think the costs of the war outweigh the benefits — up from 41 percent five years ago. 60 percent of Americans support withdrawing troops as soon as possible, according to an October Pew poll.

    A new part of the debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan is the growing support in Congress for ending the war.

    Last week, the Senate approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act calling for an accelerated drawdown in Afghanistan. While the measure is nonbinding, it is a clear sign that Congress may be catching up to the public.

    The Senate also passed a measure to improve oversight of wartime contracting. The amendment implements the recommendations of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which determined that as much as $60 billion has been lost due to contract waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Momentum for changing the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is growing in the House too. Some former supporters of the war have recently spoken out in support of ending the war. Over 90 representatives, led by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC), arguing that “there can be no military solution in Afghanistan.”

    “We are writing to urge you [the president] to pursue a strategy in Afghanistan that best serves the interests of the American people and our brave troops on the ground.,” the letter reads. “That strategy is simple: an accelerated withdrawal to bring to an end the decade-long war as soon as can safely and responsibly be accomplished.”

    Of course, despite the growing bipartisan consensus for a new strategy in Afghanistan, there are still some who support continuing the current strategy. The administration has committed to withdrawing the 68,000 combat troops over the next two years. Some administration officials are reportedly considering keeping about 10,000 troops to support ongoing counterterrorism operations.

    Still others have called for keeping 30,000 troops in the country, a move that would cost over $30 billion each year.

    The U.S. has already spent close to $600 billion and over ten years in Afghanistan — a clear sign that the current strategy isn’t working. Spending billions more to sustain a large military presence is not only unnecessary, it is fiscally irresponsible. The momentum in Congress for ending the war is a good first step toward a more effective strategy in Afghanistan, and a better plan for spending taxpayer dollars.

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  4. U.S. Taxpayers Pay the Price for Wasteful War Strategy

    Published: November 20th, 2012

    Forward Operating Base Gardez, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2009

    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.

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  5. War Costs Part 3: The Exploding Defense Budget

    Published: October 22nd, 2012

    Note: This is the third in a three-part series on the economic costs of the war in Afghanistan. Part one, $570 Billion and Counting, can be found here. Part two, The War That Won’t End, can be found here.

    U.S. soldiers and Marines, along with Afghan National Army soldiers, detonate explosives near an enemy fighting position. August 2008.

    An Exploding Defense Budget: One Result of Afghan War

    According to official accounts, the war in Afghanistan has cost the United States over $570 billion to date. However, the actual cost of the war has been much greater. A blank check for the war budget allowed the broader defense budget to spiral out of control.

    Today, policymakers struggle to rein in Pentagon spending, which has taken an almost sacred status over a decade with little accountability.

    The way we budgeted for the war in Afghanistan directly contributed to the spike in defense spending over the past decade. Funding for the war was separated from other defense spending into its own account. The “overseas contingency operations” account, as it was called, was supposed to include all the costs of the war; other defense spending, called the base defense budget, was in the traditional accounts.

    The goal of the separate war account was to ensure that combat operations received adequate support, without forcing tradeoffs with base defense costs.

    What actually happened was that both the base and the war budget exploded. Policymakers were hesitant to scrutinize spending labeled “for the war.” As a result, the war budget account was the perfect safety valve—a hiding place for defense costs that couldn’t fit into the base defense budget.

    Policymakers weren’t eager to trim the base defense budget either. From 2001 to 2011, the amount appropriated for the base defense budget totals $5.2 trillion, an increase of $670 billion over the pre-2001 defense budget plan.

    More than ten years of war helped to foster an aura of sacredness around the defense budget. Policymakers, unwilling to exercise oversight, turned a blind eye to budget gimmicks and signed off on the Pentagon’s requests each year.

    Today, we’re starting to feel the the results going ten years without taking a hard look at defense spending. With the national debt at $16 trillion and counting, policymakers are trying to rein in out-of-control spending. Reintroducing fiscal responsibility to the Pentagon budget is proving difficult, but eliminating unnecessary defense programs is the key to a more effective and efficient defense strategy.

    Ending the war in Afghanistan is a good place to start. Fiscally responsible policymakers know that much of the $570 billion allocated for the war in Afghanistan was spent unnecessarily. Eliminating waste in the war budget is one step towards a smarter, more sustainable defense strategy.

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  6. War Costs, Part 2: The War That Won’t End

    Published: October 19th, 2012

    Note: This is the second in a three-part series on the economic costs of the war in Afghanistan. Part one can be found here. Part three is forthcoming.

    Soldiers from the 65th Military Police Company secured the road out Stublina as units from the 82nd Engineer Battalion began their search in the early morning fog. March 15, 2000,

    The War That Won’t End

    After eleven years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is planning to withdraw its combat troops by the end of 2014 — two years from now. But even after combat operations end, the U.S. policy towards Afghanistan war will continue to cost taxpayers billions each year.

    Afghanistan has become the forgotten war. It has been largely ignored by both presidential candidates. If you listened only to what policymakers are saying about Afghanistan, you might think the war was already over.

    But 68,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan today. To sustain the war effort in 2013, the Pentagon has requested over $80 billion. War costs will decline by a lot or a little in 2014  depending on the pace of the drawdown. Still, going by the trend for the past decades of wars, we can expect costs for the next two years to push the total cost of the war in Afghanistan close to $700 billion.

    But the costs of U.S. operations in Afghanistan won’t end in 2014. While the U.S. maintains that it will not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan, some policymakers have called for leaving a sizeable military force – up to 20,000 troops – in Afghanistan after 2014. Experts estimate that maintaining military presence on this scale could cost $25 billion per year.

    In addition to the possibility of supporting a continued U.S. military presence, the U.S. will likely continue to spend billions on Afghanistan aid each year. Congress has allocated $50 billion in security aid to Afghanistan over the past 10 years. U.S. officials have said its future contribution for Afghan security aid will be around $2 billion per year.

    The Afghan security forces will likely be dependent on foreign donors for quite some time, as the International Monetary Fund estimates that Afghanistan’s economy will not be able to sustain the country’s security operations until 2023.

    In addition to the ongoing costs of operations in Afghanistan, the war has led to indirect costs that will continue for decades. Studies show that caring for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan could cost $600 billion to $1 trillion over the next forty years.

    The financial cost of Afghanistan war have already taken a toll on the U.S. economy, and it will continue to do so unless we realign our Afghanistan strategy with U.S. national security interests. A reevaluation of the U.S. policy towards Afghanistan will save billions and support a more effective national security strategy.

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  7. War Costs, Part One: $570 Billion and Counting

    Published: October 9th, 2012

    The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. Today, 68,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan.

    Eleven years of war have cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. The exact amount is still unclear, and no one knows how much the war will cost in the future. This three part blog series takes an in-depth look at the fiscal costs of war.

    Part 1 on the costs of war to date is below.

    Part 2, The War That Won’t End, is available here. Part 3, The Exploding Defense Budget, is available here.

    U.S. Soldiers from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, and members of Romania's 21st Mountain Division assess an area of land for the site survey for a location for the soon-to-be-founded Forward Operating Base Mescall, Afghanistan, March 25, 2009

    War Costs, Part One: $570 Billion and Counting

    The U.S. has spent some $570 billion on the war in Afghanistan since it began eleven years ago. In the early years, the war budget was relatively small — not more than $20 billion per year through 2006. At the end of 2009, however, the U.S. announced plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, in addition to the 68,000 already stationed there. The troop surge led to a spike in war costs — over $100 billion per year for the last three years.

    The largest portion of the war budget goes to sustaining military operations in Afghanistan. In 2012, for example, war operations cost $60 billion.

    However, the war budget includes funds for other activities as well. Each year the Department of Defense spends billions on repairing and upgrading equipment used in contingency operations. Equipment “reset,” as it’s called, cost $13 billion in 2012.

    Humanitarian and economic aid programs account for billions each year, for a total of about $30 billion since 2001. $50 billion has been allocated for Afghanistan security aid since 2001.

    The return on a $570 billion investment should be clear. Unfortunately it’s far from clear what Americans have gained from the eleven-year war. In 2010 Leon Panetta, then Director of the CIA, said there were likely less than 100 members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. From 2010 through 2012 the U.S. spent over $300 billion on the war — that’s $3 billion for each member of al Qeada that might still be in Afghanistan.

    For the past two years the U.S. sustained a massive military footprint in Afghanistan in the hope of stamping out the insurgency. The last of the surge troops recently returned, bringing the number of U.S. troops still in Afghanistan back to 2009 levels. Yet violence in Afghanistan has actually increased — meaning the multibillion dollar surge strategy actually made the situation worse.

    With little to show for the billions spent in Afghanistan, public support for the war is at all-time lows. According to a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 69 percent of respondents believe the war in Afghanistan has made no difference in reducing the risk of terrorism, or has even made the danger worse. Two-thirds said the costs of the war outweigh the benefits. “Despite a continuing concern about international terrorism, after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan many Americans want to put this chapter of American foreign policy behind them,” the poll report concludes.

    It’s hardly surprising that most Americans are ready to end the Afghanistan war. The 2012 Afghanistan war budget was about $110 billion, or about $200,000 per minute. That means that in 2012 the U.S. spent more for one minute of war than the average American household earns in four years.

    After eleven years and $570 billion, Americans are ready to move on from the war in Afghanistan. But will policymakers finally make the smart choice? Or will they quietly continue to write blank checks for the war, while ignoring growing calls to end wasteful spending?

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  8. Congressman calls for accelerated drawdown

    Published: September 25th, 2012

    U.S. soldiers and Marines detonate explosives near an enemy fighting position during combat operations near the Naghlu Reservoir in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province. August 2008

    Representative C.W.Bill Young (R-FL) is the latest member of Congress to call for a speedy end to the war in Afghanistan.

    “I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can,” Rep. Young said in an interview with The Tampa Bay Times.

    The congressman, a self-described “stay-the-course politician,” had previously been a strong supporter of continuing the war. He attributes his call for an accelerated drawdown to an email from a soldier in Afghanistan.

    “I know the threat of casualties in war and am totally on board with sacrifice for my country, but what I do not agree with is the chain of command making us walk through — for lack of a better term — basically a minefield on a daily basis,” Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton wrote in June, less than two months before he was killed by an improvised explosive device.

    The letter was a personal reminder for Rep. Young of the costs of the war in Afghanistan. The congressman says he believes many of his Republican colleagues support his new stance on ending the war, though “they tend not to want to go public.”

    In fact, a small but vocal group of lawmakers is working to speed up the Afghanistan drawdown. The bipartsan group includes Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-IL), Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)”

    The legislators point to the ongoing costs of the war — about $2 billion per week — and continuing instability in Afghanistan as evidence that the war is not worth the costs.

    A majority of Americans agrees with this assessment of the war. According to a recent poll by the U.S. German Marshall Fund, 68% of American respondents favor either an immediate withdrawal or an immediate troop reduction.

    However, some key members of Congress still argue that a faster drawdown “would be the worst possible course of action.” Others have called for keeping 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, the planned withdrawal date for combat troops.

    Experts say maintaining a military presence of this size in Afghanistan could cost $25 billion per year, an amount that the U.S., still recovering from an economic crisis, can ill afford.

    Still, with staunch supporters in Congress, it seems that the war in Afghanistan will continue — backed by precious American taxpayer dollars.

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  9. Policymakers Ignoring Public Opinion on Afghanistan War

    Published: August 14th, 2012

    Washington Post editor Jackson Diehl’s op-ed “Obama and Romney are ignoring the Afghanistan war” made quite a splash.

    “Here’s some news that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would like you to ignore: Tens of thousands of American soldiers are at war this summer in Afghanistan,” Diehl wrote, concluding that both presidential candidates find talking about the war “uncomfortable and politically unprofitable.”

    The candidates silence on the Afghanistan war shows how out of touch they and other policymakers are with the American public. Americans have strong opinions on Afghanistan, and the latest polls show it.

    According to a July poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, two-thirds of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan has not been worth the costs.

    Support for the war has declined steadily over the past several years. Five years ago, over half of poll respondents said the war has been worth fighting, compared to only one in three this year.

    The belief that the costs of the war outweigh the benefits is stronger among Democrats and Independents, but a majority of Republicans (58%) agree, according to the Chicago Council poll.

    There’s more behind the decline in public support than war-weariness. Americans aren’t tired simply because the war has been long; they’re tired of spending billions of dollars on a war that no longer advances vital U.S. security interests.

    Counting only direct war costs, the U.S. has spent over $550 billion on the Afghanistan war since 2001. The effect on the economy has been devastating. “For more than a decade now, we’ve waged war as if it were free,” writes The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, “keeping our wars off the budget and, rather than paying for them as they were fought, slapping them on the national credit card.”

    Increasing the federal debt has an effect on every American. Take interest rates, for example. According to Brown University and the Watson Institute’s’ Costs of War Project, the average homebuyer had to make $600 more in mortgage payments because war borrowing has driven up interest rates.

    This year, every week of war in Afghanistan costs American taxpayers $2 billion. War costs are going down, but not fast enough. Policymakers should take their cue from the public and work to end wasteful war spending.

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  10. Seeking Responsible Policymakers on Afghanistan

    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.

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