11.12.09

The Surge's Shocking Cost

As Gen. McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry duke it out over troop headcount, Derek Thompson asks why no one ever talks about the soaring cost of the Afghan war.

President Barack Obama’s decision to send an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan took a detour Thursday when he was reportedly persuaded, by a foreign envoy’s cable, to delay escalation until the Afghan government proved its competence. Still the president is reportedly a matter of days from rendering his war strategy in Afghanistan. This will be a grave and significant commitment to a larger war effort that is already costing the U.S. taxpayer $144 billion, pre-escalation. So far, the debate over the war has been about strategy—counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism—and has largely shirked the straitjacket of cost that nags domestic policy debates like health care and cap and trade. To that end, I ask a simple question: Why can’t a debate about war also be a debate about money?

Geopolitical strategy might transcend dollar signs, but it is downright duplicitous to say our deficit makes additional spending impossible—unless we’re talking about a war.

Budgeting is the art of tradeoffs. As we stare in the face of a record $1.4 trillion deficit, it’s important to cast into relief what we’re trading off with a significant build up in Afghanistan. According to both the Congressional Research Service and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, the cost of sending one soldier to Afghanistan for one year is approximately $1 million. Simple math reveals that a 40,000-troop escalation equals an additional $40 billion investment.

Put military strategy on ice for a minute, and think about that number. That $40 billion could be about half the average yearly cost of health care reform over the next decade. It’s the equivalent of our total education department budget for 2010. An additional $40 billion would double our Homeland Security budget. Comparing the fight against terrorism to textbooks and electronic records might seem impolitic. But spending is scarce. It’s also zero-sum. Geopolitical strategy might transcend dollar signs, but it is downright duplicitous to say our deficit makes additional spending impossible -- unless we’re talking about a war.

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And yet, as the spotlight shifts to Afghanistan, our leaders are sampling many flavors of cognitive dissonance. Republicans who proposed a spending freeze in the teeth of a recession are now threatening to attack any troop escalation under 40,000. The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page once shredded the White House for “ spending its way into deficits that are so large they dwarf any during peacetime in U.S. history.” Now it mocks the president as “wobbly” and “spooked” for not allowing Gen. Stanley McChrystal to add whatever dollar amount he wants to a blank check from the government. Sen. Joe Lieberman said over the summer that there should be no health care reform until the recession is over. He now considers anything less than a full 40K escalation a historic concession to evil on par with surrendering to German Nazis – this about a war we’ve been losing in slow motion for eight years.

An expensive escalation in Afghanistan should be vulnerable to all of the common concerns about our long-term debt and deficit spending. To take one simple example, Chinese investors have said that their confidence in America’s ability to govern its finances would be shaken if the United States didn’t find a way to control entitlement inflation. Andy Xie, a prominent Shanghai economist, was quoted in The New Republic saying "At some point, if you refuse to contain health care costs, you'll go bankrupt. It's widely known." Government outlays are a bloated beast on two legs: entitlement inflation and military spending. It should mean nothing to foreign investors if we address the first crisis while compounding the second.

To a certain extent, war is always a debate about money. In the run-up to Iraq, one of the questions fielded by the war’s architects was “how much will this cost us?” The answers are now infamous. Paul Wolfowitz predicted that oil revenues would pay for the whole endeavor. Former Sec. of State Donald Rumsfeld cited an estimate from the Office of Management and Budget that the Iraq war would cost less than $50 billion. Now we know better. We know that the war in Afghanistan has cost more than $250 billion over the last ten years, and we know that $250 billion has not been enough. Reasonable people can say that we’ve failed to fund our ambitions. But eight years later, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the fault lies not in our funding, but in our ambitions.

To be sure, there is a dimension to the Afghanistan debate that goes far beyond red and black ink. There is no mechanism for the CBO to score the critical bank-shot of securing Pakistan by strengthening our presence along the Afghan border. Also, scaling down could help our financial integrity in the eyes of the Chinese, but it will impugn our moral integrity in the world’s eyes if we permit a reign of extremist terror marked by scourges of stonings. I don’t mean to combat our generals’ advice with my own. I’m only calling for elected officials to consider the cost of war just as they would consider the cost of any other use of taxpayer dollars. Generals on the ground advocating for an expensive counterinsurgency are only reciting their best opinion. That’s their job. The president should balance their recommendations with our capacity to fulfill them. That’s his.

Derek Thompson is a blogger and staff editor at TheAtlantic.com. He has also written for Slate.com and BusinessWeek.