The moment one passes through a war zone’s looking glass, all the predetermined conclusions, all the political certainties, all the things that war has come to embody in the American imagination—all of them crumble away. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the measure that counts most is the butcher’s bill. At home, we look to the accountant’s ledger.
Unsurprisingly, then, members of the Obama team have taken to the pages of The Washington Post to argue that the economic cost of the Afghanistan war might well be the “most influential number” in shaping troop reductions there, as the price of fielding U.S. forces has become “too high, given a wide federal budget gap that will require further cuts to domestic programs and increased deficit spending.” Or, as Sen. John Kerry, in making a case for troop cuts, put it, the war’s fiscal tally has become “unsustainable.” Donning their green eyeshades, the Republican contenders at last week’s presidential debate offered an identical line of argument.
This sort of reasoning makes for good politics. Beyond the political realm, however, the obsession with dollars and cents has had pernicious effects. Ideally, a nation’s concept of how to employ military power derives from strategy: a realistic appraisal of interests and threats, and of means and ends. In freely acknowledging that the scaling back of U.S. military plans in Afghanistan has been dictated by a reluctance to accept even marginally higher levels of wartime spending, the Obama team and its Republican bedfellows have opted for an economic answer to a noneconomic question. By definition, the primary aim of fiscal “sustainability” is not security but prosperity—a fine and important thing, but hardly a cause for which Americans should ever be asked to risk their lives.
Put another way, if the war is right and necessary, then its expense shouldn’t matter.
Likewise, if it is wrong or unimportant, either morally or strategically, the president has no business risking a single American life in Afghanistan.
Lest it be forgotten, it is not the war that has broken Washington’s budget. So it is strange, indeed, that phrases like “How much is enough?”—presumed after Vietnam to have been banished forever from the lexicon of military affairs—have once again returned to favor. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, computes that troop cuts will help solve America’s debt crisis. “Obama could save more than $100 billion a year on the Pentagon budget just by sequestering savings after exiting the Iraq and Afghan wars,” Gelb wrote recently. “That goal is a good reason to start the withdrawal process this July at 30,000 and remove them within a year.”
This is risible. On the question of what to do about Afghanistan, there’s ample room for disagreement. The war may even perpetuate the U.S.’s strategic bankruptcy. But it hardly threatens to put us into actual bankruptcy.
Next year the Pentagon plans to spend $107 billion in Afghanistan—this, in comparison to the $3.7 trillion that the Obama team plans to spend overall. Put another way, Afghanistan amounts to all of 0.75 percent of the nation’s $14.1 trillion GDP. So, no—war bonds, scrap drives, and rationing won’t be necessary. Quite the reverse: while the government spends $100 billion on America’s fighting men and women in Afghanistan, it will funnel 20 times that—more than $2 trillion—to its citizen-spectators through Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and other varieties of domestic spending.
The whole business of waging war on a shoestring reflects an insistence on substituting budget gimmickry for genuine strategic measures of effectiveness. True, American forces have made progress, but then it is also true that savings may be wrung from their accomplishments. Thus, for all of its faux moral posturing about the pace of military deployments, the Obama team has cast a glance backward to the Donald Rumsfeld era and announced that, even with the Army and Marines at war, it will shrink their ranks by tens of thousands of personnel. “Everybody wants to have a peace dividend,” House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon has rightly complained, “but we’re not at peace.”
No, we’re not. So it may be useful to note that one-time sunk costs like equipment and construction—the constellation of bases that loop around Afghanistan, not the troops who inhabit them—account for the war’s steepest expenditures. Or, as the headline in an exhaustive report by the Congressional Research Service put it, “Military Personnel Is Not Main Factor in Increases.” As the report goes on to explain, between 2004 and 2008, as war-related costs were escalating to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, and more and more troops were being dispatched overseas, “military personnel costs grew by about 2% or $300 million, explaining little of the overall increase.” The counterargument, that withdrawing 30,000 troops will make a dent in the budget (much less the national debt), is a fanciful and half-informed conceit.
During his farewell tour earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates neatly summarized the dangers inherent in this sort of reasoning. He warned that “retrenchment brought about by shortsighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later—indeed as they always have in the past.” In the name of a troop reduction that will cut the war’s price tag by 15 percent at most, budget cutters from both parties now threaten to undo all that has been done in this military campaign.
Ultimately, though, the risk of achieving security by means of penny-pinching may soon be felt in Afghanistan, where it really hurts.
Kaplan is a contributing editor at The New Republic and a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of Defense.