In what has been a blockbuster week for Afghanistan news with the release of the Afghanistan Papers by the Washington Post, a groundbreaking new analysis by the Institute for Spending Reform, Rethinking Afghanistan, shows that a troop withdrawal from the country could save up to $386 billion over the next four years. For context, that is nearly 10% of the projected budget deficit, according to CBO’s estimates.
Read the full report here.
From the report’s executive summary:
After 18 years at war, it is clear that American efforts in Afghanistan have been a strategic and fiscal failure. The original reasons for invading the country and then staying have shifted continually since 2001, while American lives and resources continue being committed. Recent efforts by the Trump Administration to wind down the nation’s longest war should receive support from anyone who is concerned about national or fiscal security.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush framed the conflict in Afghanistan as a direct strike against those who attacked the United States. Since that time, it has devolved into an expensive, open-ended, and ultimately fruitless exercise in nation-building.
Those who defend staying in Afghanistan inevitably say it is too soon to withdraw. They claim doing so will encourage instability in the country or even require a reengagement of military forces. However, these arguments tend to ignore the role continued involvement has played in fostering instability of its own, to the tune of at least $2 trillion – and counting.
Furthermore, debates that focus on timelines rather than conditions ignore alternative paths which would provide greater security to the U.S. and are significantly more affordable. Pursuing these paths offers several distinct benefits to policymakers now and in the future.
First, a new path would allow the United States to better fulfill the goals of the National Defense Strategy, resulting in a foreign policy that is more agile and prepared for 21st Century great power threats, not bogged down in an open-ended nation-building mission. Our involvement in Afghanistan has made it more difficult to follow through on U.S. strategic goals and discouraged regional players from stepping up to the task of maintaining stability – even when they have a vested interest in doing so.
Second, rethinking Afghanistan would be what the American people want, as clearly demonstrated in various public opinion polls. Now 18 years after the start of the conflict, American civilians and military veterans alike continue to favor withdrawal by significant margins.
Third, a reduced presence in Afghanistan offers the potential to save hundreds of billions of dollars. New estimates show that direct and indirect war spending to date totals more than $2 trillion, and including future veterans’ obligations results in a price tag of more than $2.5 trillion.
Were the U.S. to draw down involvement, this paper estimates possible savings ranging from $150 billion to $280 billion over the next four years, and by between $210 billion and $386 billion when accounting for the accrual of additional future obligations. For context, based on the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) latest projections, these savings would account for as much as 9.4% of the U.S. budget deficit during the next four years.
After 18 years at war, mistakes are myriad and documented, but ruminating on mistakes will neither bring back lives lost nor refund money spent. Lawmakers must instead learn from the past and create a better path forward by rethinking Afghanistan.
The full report can be read and downloaded at RethinkingAfghanistan.org.