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 24th, 2012
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.
Published: December 10th, 2012
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.
Published: December 5th, 2012
The U.S Senate approved a non-binding resolution calling for an accelerated transition to local security forces Afghanistan, withdrawing U.S combat forces earlier than the planned 2014 deadline. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan will require an “enduring presence” post-2014.
The Outpost: No Strategic Purpose for U.S. Efforts in Afghanistan
Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski
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.
Majority in U.S. Senate Support Accelerated Afghanistan Transition Pace
Defense News by John Bennett
In a bipartisan vote of 62-33, the upper chamber approved what’s called a “sense of Congress” measure offered by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., that formally stamps Senate approval on an “accelerated transition of United States combat and military and security operations to the government of Afghanistan,” according to a Senate summary of the provision.
Panetta: Post-2014 Afghan Effort To Be Substantial
The U.S. intends to wage a counterterrorism campaign inside Afghanistan even after the main U.S. combat force leaves in 2014 in order to prevent al-Qaida from fulfilling its ambition to re-establish a sanctuary there, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.
New commander faces challenge of winding down Afghanistan war
Reuters by David Alexander
Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who takes over as head of international forces in Afghanistan next year, faces the challenge of winding down a war in a country where he has little experience using a strategy he did not devise.
Differing Afghan, U.S. priorities could sabotage proposed security agreement
Washington Post by Pamela Constable and Craig Whitlock
When the two sides meet again this month for more substantive discussions, each will begin to lay out a competing set of military concerns, political constraints and legal priorities that could severely test their fledgling postwar partnership, possibly to the point of failure.
How to fight in Afghanistan with fewer U.S. troops
Washington Post by David Barno and Matthew Irvine
Protecting these [vital national security] interests after 2014 will require the United States to be able to launch precision military strikes from this region. But it will not require tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
The Pace of Leaving Afghanistan
New York Times Editorial
[The drawdown] should start now and should not take more than a year. We strongly supported the war in Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but after more than a decade of fighting and a cost upward of $500 billion it is time for a safe and orderly departure.
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 6th, 2012
A week after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, many are struggling to cope with the devastation left behind. In New York, freezing temperatures and fuel shortages combined to create a housing crisis leaving devastation in its wake. Some 1.4 million homes and businesses are still without power.
The economic damage cause by Sandy is estimated at $30 billion to $50 billion, a staggering amount on its own, but tiny compared to the amounts the U.S. has spent on the war in Afghanistan.
In fact, for the past three years the annual costs of the war in Afghanistan have been more than double the estimated cost of Sandy, $107 billion in 2010, $122 billion in 2011, and $111 billion in 2012.
Only Hurricane Katrina, the most expensive storm on record at over $100 billion, comes close to the costs of one year of war in Afghanistan.
Cumulatively, the comparison is even more incredible. According to a recent report by the National Hurricane Center, economic costs from the top ten most expensive storms
from 1900 to 2010 totals $283 billion – about $300 billion less than the amount the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan since 2001.
Unfortunately, the $580 billion invested in the war effort hasn’t seen a national security return. Over the past three years an additional 30,000 U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan – yet the number of insurgent attacks is higher today than it was in 2009. The U.S. has allocated over $50 billion to train and equip the Afghan security forces, yet no Afghan Army unit can operate independently and accusations of corruption and abuse in the Afghan police force are widespread. Billions more have been spent on construction projects that Afghanistan’s economy will not be able to sustain.
As Hurricane Sandy has made all too clear, taxpayer dollars would be better spent on rebuilding U.S. cities than on wasteful projects in Afghanistan.
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.
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.
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.
Published: July 12th, 2012
While there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what the U.S. presence to Afghanistan will look like after 2014, the U.S. took a step towards clarifying its commitment this week by designating Afghanistan a major non-NATO ally. International donors also committed to $16 billion in development aid to Afghanistan over the next four years at the international aid conference in Tokyo this Sunday. Both announcements ensure that the U.S. will be sending billions of taxpayer dollars to Afghanistan even as troop levels go down. And the drawdown itself will come at a high price. According to Pentagon officials, moving U.S. troops and equipment out of Afghanistan will cost billions of dollars, on top of more than $500 billion already spent on the Afghanistan war.
U.S. Commits to Billions in Afghanistan Aid
Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski
The U.S. seems to be making a feeble attempt – very feeble; only in Afghanistan could $16 billion over four years be considered a cut – to stem the flow of aid dollars to Afghanistan. But what’s missing is an attempt to improve accountability in Afghanistan aid.
Afghan exit will cost U.S. billions, Pentagon’s No. 2 says
USA Today by Tom Vanden Brook
Moving the mountain of U.S. military gear out of Afghanistan after more than a decade of war will cost billions of dollars and prove far more difficult than last year’s withdrawal from Iraq.
Pentagon cuts $1 billion from funding for Afghanistan’s national security forces
The Hill’s Defcon by Carlo Munoz
The Defense Department has decided to siphon off $1 billion from Pentagon accounts dedicated to building up Afghanistan’s national security forces and shift those dollars to other military priorities.
Why Building Stuff in Afghanistan Costs So Much
Time’s Battleland by Mark Thompson
Here’s part of the reason we’re spending so much money in Afghanistan. Just take a look at some of the pieces of a solicitation seeking a Swiss-Army-Knife complex to house a Ministry of Interior Supply Point, Fire Department, and Uniformed Police District Headquarters, in Nimroz province in the southwestern corner of the country.
Is corruption the cost of saving Afghanistan?
The Globe and Mail by Roland Paris
Why should we continue to provide billions of dollars to a regime and country where corruption is not just a problem but an integral part of the governing system?
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.