On Monday, news broke that was so shocking it managed to cut through the constant impeachment cycle and make headlines for days. As someone who has worked in public policy for years, I admit that very little surprises me anymore. But the news that the US government – at various levels and across multiple administrations – has been brazenly lying to the American people about the state of the war in Afghanistan should shock us all to our core.
Of course, what we already knew is bad enough. For months, my organization has been delving into the details of the nation’s longest war, preparing the only comprehensive report that examines the case for restraint from both a fiscal and strategic perspective. “Rethinking Afghanistan” contains several key takeaways as news breaks that peace negotiations have again been restarted.
From a strategic perspective, it is immediately clear that something has gone terribly wrong. Where the war was initially framed in clear terms of eliminating terrorist safe havens, it quickly shifted into an open-ended attempt to build a Western-style democracy in a country that had never had one. This goal stands in stark contrast to those articulated in the latest National Defense Strategy and has, put simply, not been met. What’s worse, defenders of continued engagement in Afghanistan tend to suggest we must remain in the nation to fight terrorism – even though our nation-building presence makes it more difficult for other nations to mitigate terror threats when they have a vested interest in doing so.
US officials and at least some lawmakers knew this for years and continued nevertheless to ask for more, claiming that anyone favoring fiscal restraint simply did not want a strong mission.
The American people realize something has gone wrong. As noted in “Rethinking Afghanistan,” both civilians and military alike want to wind down the war, consistently across time and in various opinion polls. There has been an enormous cost, but rethinking engagement offers much more to gain.
Building from figures compiled in Neta C. Crawford’s Cost of War reports, our paper extrapolates the total cost of Afghanistan over the last 18 years, estimating that the total cost of the war to date is over $2.5 trillion. That figure includes roughly $1 trillion of direct war costs and an additional $1.5 trillion in related costs and accrued obligations. Of that total, $2 trillion is already spent, while nearly $500 billion in accrued future costs for veterans’ care remain over the next four decades. (Coincidentally, the New York Times on Monday conducted a similar analysis, asking “What did the US get for $2 trillion in Afghanistan?” – a good question indeed.)
But ruminating on what has been spent will not refund the costs any more than lamenting the human cost can bring back lives lost. The more important question remains – what will policymakers do next?
Our research suggests that they would be wise to draw down involvement and could save hundreds of billions of dollars by doing so. If the US were to draw down its involvement, we could save between $150 billion and $280 billion over the next four years – when you consider additional accrued future obligations, that number jumps to between $210 billion and $386 billion. For context, based on the Congressional Budget Office‘s latest projections, these savings would account for as much as 9.4% of the US budget deficit during the next four years. It is impossible to be a fiscal conservative and ignore these costs – and potential savings.
Often, there arises a false dichotomy in contemporary politics: That of fiscal hawks versus defense hawks. For years, we have known this to be a limited view at best, but the release of the Afghanistan papers shows it to be dead wrong. Overspending in Afghanistan has created a situation rife with corruption – even, perhaps, a kleptocracy – making future prospects of a stable democracy dimmer by the day and putting countless troops’ lives at risk. US officials and at least some lawmakers knew this for years and continued nevertheless to ask for more, claiming that anyone favoring fiscal restraint simply did not want a strong mission. This claim, we now know, is dead wrong.
As we approach the end of the decade, the United States looks back on billions spent, thousands of lives lost, and no clear end in sight. The news that peace negotiations have begun again is promising, but attention spans and news cycles are shorter than ever. With our new research, we know what has been lost, and we know the stakes were the status quo to continue. Now is the time to ensure our elected officials do not allow that to happen.
Jonathan Bydlak is a fiscal policy expert and president of the Institute for Spending Reform, which spearheads SpendingTracker.org and recently released Rethinking Afghanistan.