Published: February 26th, 2013
The announcement that half of the U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan will come home in the next year has been met with some criticism. Kimberly and Fred Kagan, noted proponents of extending the Afghanistan war, argue that the pace of the drawdown is too fast and dismiss the potential for budget savings.
The cost of a slower drawdown is “budget dust in the context of overall defense spending, let alone the national debt, the deficit, or any major social program,” the Kagans write.
“It doesn’t cost much compared to other things” is a poor defense for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. That strategy cost more than $600 billion over the past eleven years. And it will continue to cost billions each year even after U.S. combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
The U.S. is expected to spend about $2 billion per year on economic and development aid to Afghanistan for the next several years. Supporting the Afghan security forces is expected to cost several billion per year, declining to $2.3 billion in 2017 and beyond. The cost of sustaining a military presence in Afghanistan could cost an estimated $6 billion to $20 billion, depending on the troop level chosen by policymakers.
The U.S. and allies are reportedly considering a light military footprint for Afghanistan after 2014. Even if the U.S. opts for lower troop levels, that does not mean the strategy is sound. Continuing the same strategy that wasted billions of dollars over the past eleven years will only allow the inefficiencies to continue on a smaller scale. Whether it is $40 million or $40 billion, wasting taxpayer dollars is unacceptable.
The Kagans’ flippant approach allowed the war budget to spiral out of control. This same thinking is behind the bloated Pentagon budget. Today, the Pentagon budget — the base budget, not including additional costs for the war — has almost doubled since 2001.
Eliminating wasteful spending in the war budget and developing a more cost-effective strategy for our future engagement with Afghanistan is a good way to start reining in the Pentagon budget. But it is just a first step. We need to reevaluate our broader defense strategy too, setting priorities and applying same scrutiny to the war budget and the non-war budget.
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 31st, 2012
2012 saw some important milestones in the Afghanistan war. The last of the surge troops left Afghanistan in September. U.S. and Afghan officials met twice to discuss post-2014 plans. The international community emphasized its continued commitment to Afghanistan by pledging billions in economic aid.
But the past year also brought more questions about whether the billions the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan were an effective use of taxpayer money.
Below is a roundup of the top reports in 2012 that uncovered examples of wasteful spending and an ineffective strategy in Afghanistan:
Afghanistan’s National Power Utility: $12.8 million in DOD-purchased equipment sits unused, and USAID paid a contractor for work not done. (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, December 2012)
Pentagon Says Afghan Forces Still Need Assistance (The New York Times on the Department of Defense annual Afghanistan assessment, December 2012)
- “A bleak new Pentagon report has found that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners”
DOD Decision Makers Need Additional Analyses to Determine Costs and Benefits of Returning Excess Equipment (The Government Accountability Office, December 2012)
- “[The military’s equipment in Afghanistan] estimated to be worth more than $36 billion, has accumulated during a 10-year period. DOD officials also estimate that it could cost $5.7 billion to return or transfer equipment from Afghanistan.
- “Five of seven fiscal year 2011 AIF [Afghanistan infrastructure] projects are 6-15 months behind schedule, and most projects may not achieve desired COIN benefits for several years”
- “The Afghan government will likely be incapable of fully sustaining ANSF [Afghan National Security] facilities after the transition in 2014 and the expected decrease in U.S. and coalition support.”
- “The ANSF lacks personnel with the technical skills required to operate and maintain critical facilities, such as water supply, waste water treatment, and power generation.”
- “The Ministry of Defense’s procurement process is unable to provide the Afghan army with O&M supplies in a timely manner.”
U.S. probes reported record-shredding of fuel buys for Afghan army (Reuters on SIGAR letter, Interim Report on Afghan National Army Petroleum, Oil, and Lubricants, September 2012)
- “Investigators are probing reports of record-shredding by officials in the U.S.-led NATO command that trains the Afghan army after learning that records of fuel purchases for the Afghans totaling nearly $475 million are gone.”
Military’s Own Report Card Gives Afghan Surge an F (Wired on ISAF report on Enemy Initiated Attacks, September 2012)
- “The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan ended last week. Conditions in Afghanistan are mostly worse than before it began. That conclusion doesn’t come from anti-war advocates. It relies on data recently released by the NATO command in Afghanistan.”
USAID has disbursed $9.5 billion for reconstruction and funded some financial audits as required, but many audits face significant delays, accountability limitations, and lack of resources (SIGAR, April 2012)
USAID spent almost $400 Million on an Afghan stabilization project despite uncertain results, but has taken steps to better assess similar Efforts (SIGAR, April 2012)
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 26th, 2012
Despite official U.S. assessments that al Qaeda leadership has been “decimated,” some experts are insisting that the U.S. maintain a heavy military footprint in Afghanistan — a strategy that will cost billions of dollars each year.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently addressed the success of U.S. efforts against al Qaeda, saying “al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened in Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Its most effective leaders are gone. Its command, and control have been degraded, and its safe haven is shrinking….we have decimated core al-Qaeda.”
The U.S. must still “finish the job” in Afghanistan, Secretary Panetta added, calling for continued commitment on both military and diplomatic fronts.
Of course, Sec. Panetta’s stance on the Afghanistan war is representative of the Pentagon establishment perspective, and therefore flawed. He says that the administration of sending an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan was a success. But the number of enemy attacks actually increased during years of the troop surge.
Similarly, Secretary Panetta insists that “we are at a turning point after 10 years of war.” But that’s what officials and experts have been saying about the war for years. But every year since 2002 has been a “turning point” in the Afghanistan war, according to officials and experts.
More disturbing than the Pentagon’s take on the war is the fact that some pundits still support a sustained military presence in Afghanistan. The latest defense of this flawed strategy is a Washington Post op-ed by Kimberly Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan.
The authors are known supporters of continuing the current strategy in Afghanistan, despite the mounting evidence that the strategy isn’t working. In this latest piece they call for keeping 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2014 and about 30,000 after 2014.
The authors don’t say how long these 30,000 will stay, but they compare the troop level to the number of U.S. troops stationed in Korea, perhaps a hint that they would like to see U.S. troops in Afghanistan for decades to come.
Interestingly, the authors are completely silent how much their plan for Afghanistan will cost. This should be a red flag for taxpayers.
The Kagans’ plan is essentially this: keeping tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan has worked so well over the past ten years that we should continue the same strategy for the foreseeable future.
But not only has the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan failed, it has cost close to $600 billion. Continuing the current strategy will not strengthen U.S. national security; it will only add billions to the costs of the war.
Maintaining a military footprint on the scale envisioned by the Kagans would likely cost about $35 billion per year, based on expert estimates. That doesn’t include the billions of dollars for security and economic aid that the U.S. and allies have committed to Afghanistan over the next several years.
With a national debt of over $16 trillion, policymakers are debating the best way to cut back on government spending. In the midst of the fiscal crisis, spending billions on a war that most Americans want to end is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Published: November 21st, 2012
In Afghanistan this week, proceedings began in the long-stalled trial of some two dozen people accused of corruption leading to the collapse of the Kabul Bank in 2010. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress confirmed Gen. Joseph Dunford as the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Asked about the post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan at his confirmation hearing, Gen. Dunford indicated his belief “that advise-and-assist role is an enduring role and would extend past December 2014,” and that a force of 1,000 would be insufficient for this mission.
U.S. Taxpayers Pay the Price for Wasteful War Strategy
Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski
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.
Obama pick for Afghanistan commander describes US role beyond 2014
President Barack Obama’s choice to be the top commander in Afghanistan said Thursday he envisions a U.S. presence in the country after American combat forces leave at the end of 2014, despite a national war-weariness reflected in Congress.
Fraud Trial Begins in Multimillion-Dollar Afghan Bank Scandal
New York Times by Alissa J. Rubin
A major step toward resolving the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars from Kabul Bank began last week with the trial of nearly two dozen people, including the bank’s former chairman and former chief executive, who are accused of being the main architects of a colossal fraud.
France ends combat mission in Afghanistan
AFP by Joris Fioriti
France ended its combat mission in Afghanistan on Tuesday, withdrawing troops from a strategic province northeast of Kabul as part of a quickened departure from the war-torn country.
Get out of Afghanistan now
The Augusta Chronicle by Timothy Monroe Bledsoe
I am not angry at the U.S. troops who fought in this war – but then, as now, I am angry and frustrated by the ignorance that pervades Washington, D.C., to continue, yet again, to put U.S. troops in harm’s way for absolutely nothing!
Obama should now adjust foreign policy
Times Leader by Sarah Chayes
Obama should use this one to reverse one of the most dysfunctional elements of U.S. foreign policy over the last decade: an infatuation with military solutions to problems that are fundamentally political.
Focus on the Tragedy of the Afghan War, Not on the Farce
Huffington Post by William Astore
The real story is not the farce but the ongoing military tragedy of Afghanistan. The United States still has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, with plans for a sizable training force to remain well past the troop withdrawal deadline set for the end of 2014.
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 13th, 2012
The resignation of CIA Director General David Petraeus as head of the CIA last Friday led many to reflect on the legacy of the man who led U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.
Bing West, assistant Secretary of Defense for President Reagan, had this to say about Gen. Petraeus and Afghanistan:
“Gen. Petraeus’s concept of nation building as a military mission probably will not endure. Our military can train the armed forces of others (if they are willing) and, in Afghanistan, we can leave behind a cadre to destroy nascent terrorist havens. But American soldiers don’t know how to build Minneapolis or Memphis, let alone Muslim nations.”
West pinpointed one of the fundamental flaws of nation-building. U.S. troops are most capable in the world, but they are trained for combat, not building roads and distributing food aid.
There’s another big problem with nation-building in Afghanistan: it is very expensive. And with the a national debt of over $16 trillion, the U.S. cannot afford to spend billions more on the war in Afghanistan.
War costs ramped up significantly as the U.S. mission in Afghanistan expanded. From 2001 to 2006, spending on the war did not exceed $20 billion per year. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, war costs were over $100 billion per year.
As U.S. combat troops leave Afghanistan, war funding will decline, but not as much as you might expect. The Pentagon’s request for operations in Afghanistan in 2013 is $85.6 billion, or $1.6 billion per week.
The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 is still unclear. But if 20,000 troops remain, a plan that some members of Congress support, war costs could top $25 billion per year for years to come.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is facing a fierce budget debate at home. With a national debt of over $16 trillion, finding ways to cut back government spending is critical. The Pentagon is already facing significant budget reductions of $487 billion over the next ten years, plus another $500 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts if Congress fails to agree on a budget deal before January.
The war has already cost over $580 billion. Spending billions more on nation-building in Afghanistan, while the U.S. economy is still recovering, doesn’t make sense.
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: November 1st, 2012
A new report by the U.S. government watchdog that oversees reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan has called into question the ability of the Afghan government to sustain U.S.-funded security forces and facilities after 2014. Afghanistan’s challenges, the report says, include a lack of skilled personnel and undeveloped processes. Since 2002 the U.S. has allocated over $50 billion in security aid for Afghanistan.
How much will “victory” in Afghanistan cost?
Afghanistan Study Group by Mary Kaszynski
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.
Afghan Called Ill-Prepared to Maintain Bases on Their Own
Bloomberg by David Lerman
The Afghan government probably will prove incapable of operating and maintaining U.S.-funded army and police facilities when coalition combat troops leave in 2014, a U.S. government watchdog said.
Afghans will hold presidential election in spring
USA Today by Carmen Gentile
Analysts and others worry that a fair election will not be possible, especially in light of fraud and corruption complaints that marred the last presidential election in 2009.
Afghans will hold presidential election in spring
New Afghan War Phase, With No Decisive End Seen
A new chapter of the Afghanistan war is opening with a slimmed-down Western force doing more advising than fighting, a resilient Taliban showing little interest in peace talks, and Americans tempted to pull the plug on a conflict now in its 12th year.
A decisive end seems nowhere in sight.
Afghan Army Seeks Better Equipment, But Lacks Basic Skills
NPR by Sean Carberry
One of the most common complaints from Afghan forces and officials is that they don’t have the equipment they need to lead the fight in Afghanistan…But, U.S. troops more often than not say that the Afghans don’t need all the high-tech gear.
Let’s get out of Afghanistan
Philadelphia Daily News Editorial Board
Despite what the presidential candidates say or don’t say, it’s time for an orderly and safe withdrawal of our troops. And once we get out of Afghanistan, we need to take a hard look at the political system that allows our leaders to wage a war that most Americans don’t want.
NATO ‘on message’ on Afghanistan – but what does the message mean?
Left Foot Forward by Patrick Bury
Despite the best efforts of NATO, the West’s wider security and stability mission in Afghanistan is heading for strategic failure. This is due to both our own hubris and the pervasive corruption and incompetence of those we chose to ally ourselves with in Afghanistan.