June 22, 2011

Troop Drawdown Won't Stop Spending Machine

When snow starts falling in Afghanistan later this year, fewer U.S. soldiers will be on the ground, and fewer taxpayer dollars will be required to continue to finance the war.

President Obama is expected to announce Wednesday evening that a portion of the 30,000 surge troops he ordered to Afghanistan will be brought home later this year.

But the savings in the first year -- probably less than $10 billion -- won't be much to write home about, especially considering the U.S. has already run up a $443 billion tab in Afghanistan.

It's not yet clear exactly how many troops will leave the country, or when. But according to an analysis conducted by Center for a New American Security researcher Travis Sharp, if 15,000 troops were removed in fiscal year 2012, taxpayers would save $7 billion over the previous year's spending levels.

That level of savings is hard to get excited about.

"Seven billion is really quite modest," said Sharp. "If people think taking out surge troops is the answer to the Pentagon's budget problems, they have another thing coming."

In recent years, spending in Afghanistan has skyrocketed, right along with troop levels.

The United States spent $43 billion on the war in 2008, seven years after hostilities began, according to a Congressional Research Service report. This year, spending will hit $118 billion. There were 33,000 troops on the ground in 2009. Now there are 102,000.

Generally speaking, more troops mean higher costs for the military.

The bin Laden spending spree

Some researchers have estimated that each soldier on the ground in Afghanistan costs the military as much as $1 million a year. That's the top-end range.But there are other factors to consider.For the military, one of the biggest cost drivers in simple geography. Afghanistan is home to some very, very rough terrain, no ports, and little in the way of infrastructure.

"It's a landlocked country and you have to truck everything in from somewhere," said Chris Hellman, senior research analyst at the National Priorities Project, who added that supply lines are often disrupted by Afghan militants.

Fuel, for example, is shipped from Pakistan in convoys of trucks that must endure challenging terrain, a lack of decent highways, and a tricky border crossing. All that increases cost.

Another driver of cost in recent years is a vast expansion in operations and maintenance costs, which have nearly doubled between 2004 and 2008, from $42 billion to $80 billion.

And spending on war-related investments like mine-resistant trucks and base construction necessary for the unique challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan still costs billions every year.

Pentagon budget: Time to cut

Just because troops start leaving Afghanistan, those costs won't go away. And if combat forces leave, other kinds of spending might have to increase.

"We may see a shift in funding rather than a reduction," Hellman said. "We might just be moving money from combat accounts to support accounts."

Afghan security forces, for example, might get a funding boost as their duties expand. Already the United States has increased the money spent on that force from $1.3 billion in 2005 to $11.6 billion in 2011.

Hellman said U.S. taxpayers will be footing that bill for a long time. After all, the GDP of Afghanistan was only $27 billion in 2010, according to the CIA factbook.

And even the act of pulling soldiers out of the fight will cost, Sharp said, citing additional transportation and security spending necessary to complete the drawdown.