Of all the statistics that President Obama's national-security team will consider when it debates the size of 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.
WASHINGTON — Of all the statistics that President Obama’s national-security team will consider when it debates the size of 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 Afghanistan operations 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 in Afghanistan 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 others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.
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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 increase Obama authorized in 2009 has achieved many goals — instead of tackling money matters directly. When the president’s war cabinet evaluates troop-withdrawal options presented in coming weeks by Gen. David 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.”
The question of cost will have a far greater impact on the eventual decision than it did during the White House debate about troop levels in late 2009. The heightened fiscal pressures, coupled with bin Laden’s killing four weeks ago, could shift the balance of power toward Vice President Joseph Biden and other civilians who had been skeptical of the strategy and favor a faster troop drawdown than top commanders would prefer.
“Money is the new 800-pound gorilla,” said another senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy. “It shifts the debate from ‘Is the strategy working?’ to ‘Can we afford this?’ And when you view it that way, the scope of the mission that we have now is far, far less defensible.”
Military and civilian officials agree the cost of the Afghan mission is staggering. The amount per deployed service member in Afghanistan, which the administration estimates at $1 million per year, is significantly higher than it was in Iraq because fuel and other supplies must be trucked into the landlocked nation, often through circuitous routes. Bases, meanwhile, have to be built from scratch.
The U.S.-led effort to create a new national army, which Afghanistan never had, has consumed more than $28 billion. The Pentagon wants $12.8 billion for fiscal 2012 — the largest single line item in next year’s Defense Department budget request — to continue training and equipping Afghan soldiers.
To civilian administration officials, the budgetary drain of the Afghan war means fewer resources to put toward other pressing national-security challenges.
The United States spent nearly $1.3 billion last year on military and civilian reconstruction operations in one district of Helmand province — home to 80,000 people who live mostly in mud-brick compounds — about as much as it provided to Egypt in military assistance.
Civilian officials expect top military commanders to resist calls for steep reductions. Military leaders maintain the addition of 30,000 troops and an increase in civilian reconstruction efforts have resulted in a dramatic turnaround of what had been a foundering war, creating the possibility of a reasonably stable nation.
They insist a rapid withdrawal of forces would make that goal unachievable by rolling back territorial gains against the Taliban and jeopardizing efforts to develop Afghan security forces and build government institutions. U.S. military officers also contend the aim of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban — an outcome espoused by the White House and the State Department, but not as vigorously embraced by top commanders — would be at risk if there were fewer troops.
“We’re at a critical point in the war,” one senior military official said. “If we send the message that we’re letting up, what incentive does the Taliban have to make a deal with us?”
Civilian officials argue recent gains against the Taliban and al-Qaida largely have been the result of a counterterrorism strategy implemented by special-operations forces, not the costly, large-footprint counterinsurgency mission that aims to secure the country district by district. Reducing conventional forces, some civilians assert, will not fundamentally alter the calculus that has led to interest among Taliban leaders in exploring peace talks.
“Our mission is to disrupt and dismantle al-Qaida, and what the bin Laden killing shows us is that you can do that with a small number of highly skilled guys,” the second senior official said. “You don’t need Army and Marine battalions in dozens of districts.”
Concern about war costs is putting new political pressure on Obama, much of it from fellow Democrats. The House last week narrowly defeated an amendment calling for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan and a fixed timetable for turning over military operations to the Afghan government. The vote, 215-204, was far closer than last year’s 260-162 tally on the same issue.
In the Senate, influential members have said the cost of the war merits a re-examination of the overall U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. “It is fundamentally unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said this month.
Some Republican presidential candidates also are beginning to have second thoughts about the scope of the war, which White House officials believe could provide political cover to Obama as he pursues a drawdown.
An initial indication of the White House’s view on the costs occurred this month when the National Security Council rejected the military’s request to expand Afghanistan’s security forces by 73,000 personnel.
Concerned not only about the price of training but also the cost of maintaining the force — estimated at $6 billion to $8 billion a year, which far exceeds the resources of the Afghan government, whose annual budget is about $1.5 billion — the NSC authorized the addition of 47,000 personnel. That would bring the total combined size of the Afghan army and national police force to 352,000.
“We’re building an army that they’ll never be able to pay for, which means we’re going to have to pay for it for years and years to come,” the first official said.
Military officials said reducing troop levels might not reduce costs proportionally because of the need to sustain bases and other infrastructure. Their intention is to “thin out” U.S. forces in many areas, not withdraw entirely, to facilitate an orderly transition to the Afghan government. “Pulling out more forces than prudent may not yield the cost savings everyone wants,” the senior military official said.
Although troop reductions almost certainly will begin in July, when Obama promised to start a drawdown, military engineers and contractors continue to expand bases across southern Afghanistan.
Recent supplemental appropriations, including billions of dollars for construction and equipment, “have been like crack” cocaine for the military, said one officer in southern Afghanistan.”We’ve become addicted to building.”