The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Numbers: Past and Future Cost of the Afghan War

Given all the talk about the coming escalation in Afghanistan, I thought I'd put some figures on past and potential future cost of the war.

These are the past levels U.S. troops in Afghanistan. President Obama increased it by 21,000 this year. Talk of further escalation suggests there will be anywhere between 20,000 and 45,000 extra soldiers sent in the coming year. Casualties have roughly shadowed troop levels.

These numbers include Europeans and Canadians fighting in Afghanistan. Until 2008, America's NATO allies contributed roughly half of all forces in the country. These numbers do not include military contractors employed by the Department of Defense, of which we know comparatively little. In Afghanistan, at over 68,000, they outnumber American forces 1.3 to 1. Over 76% are local Afghans, almost 15% are Americans, the remaining 10% being other nationalities. (See the Congressional Research Service's detailed report on the subject.) Like the number of uniformed U.S. military personnel, their number too has been increasing.

The financial burden of the Afghan War up to today has been about $189 billion for the U.S. The cost in treasure, like that in blood, has also run roughly parallel to troop levels.

Source: CRS

What conclusions can we draw? Though every death is a tragedy, the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan has not been crippling. Top U.S. officials pushing for escalation have said the renewed effort will take at least 5 years. We can assume the war will cost at least $350 billion without further escalation, and potentially over $500 billion depending on how many more soldiers are sent. To put these figures in perspective, Senator Baucus's healthcare bill has a value of $857 billion over 10 years. After escalation, the Afghan War is likely to cost about as much per year as some of the healthcare reform proposals.

The costs of the Afghan War will threaten the viability of Obama's domestic project. While the financial burden may become equal to the administration's signature domestic reform, there are also the less quantifiable political costs. Public opinion among NATO allies has largely turned against the war and the U.S. may find itself increasingly alone there despite Obama's seduction of Europe. More seriously, the American public is trailing Euro-Canadian opinion. Now, a growing majority of Americans claim they oppose the war (also see a detailed WaPo-NBC poll). Obama, who has repeatedly used calculated ambiguity and even a certain vacuity, will have to make a firm decision regarding an unenviable political dilemma. Obama campaigned on Afghanistan, largely, I believe, as a way of protecting him from baseless attacks from the Right that he would be "weak on defense". He is in a bind. In attempting to escape the fate of Jimmy Carter he may be embracing that of Lyndon Johnson.

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