While the rest of us spent the weekends reckoning the human cost of war over our country’s history, insiders in President Obama’s administration are toting up the cost of fighting today’s war in Afghanistan and finding it “unsustainable“:
Of all the statistics that President Obama’s national security team will consider when it debates the size of forthcoming troop reductions in Afghanistan, the most influential number probably will not be how many insurgents have been killed or the amount of territory wrested from the Taliban, according to aides to those who will participate.
It will be the cost of the war.
The U.S. military is on track to spend $113 billion on its operations in Afghanistan this fiscal year, and it is seeking $107 billion for the next. To many of the president’s civilian advisers, that price is too high, given a wide federal budget gap that will require further cuts to domestic programs and increased deficit spending. Growing doubts about the need for such a broad nation-building mission there in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death have only sharpened that view.
“Where we’re at right now is simply not sustainable,” said one senior administration official, who, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.
Civilian advisers, who do not want to be seen as unwilling to pay for the war, are expected to frame their cost concerns in questions about the breadth of U.S. operations — arguing that the troop surge Obama authorized in 2009 has achieved many of its goals — instead of directly tackling money matters. When the president’s war cabinet evaluates troop-withdrawal options in the next few weeks presented by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander, “it’s not like each of them will have price tags next to them,” the official said. But “it’s certainly going to shape how most of the civilians look at this.”
There are rarely field commanders who think they have sufficient resources to do their jobs, but the most successful of them find a way to fight and win with the resources they can muster. Still, when you shape your military strategy with an eye first towards cost rather than desired effects and their associated costs, you pave the way for disaster. The consequences of which never attach to those making the budgetary decisions, but rather to the poor doggies in the field forced to make do. See also, the British Army in Helmand.
The cost of fighting in Afghanistan is known to Pentagon budgeteers by the penny. I do not know if they have reckoned the human and strategic costs of losing. And while it’s true that spending on “overseas contingency operations” contributes indirectly to the budgetary shortfall – these are all fully funded operations, after all – shutting them down only kicks the can of the looming entitlement spending crisis down the road.
War or no war, the boomers are getting older and their bills are coming due.