A Closer Look at Afghanistan War Savings

Drawing down US involvement in Afghanistan has the potential to save an immense amount of money for taxpayers, free up resources to be allocated elsewhere, or both. Our estimates place the possible savings from a phased withdrawal at between $152 billion to $280 billion over the next four years in direct war costs alone. When factoring in veterans’ healthcare and disability, the cost savings could total as high as $386 billion.

What the War Has Cost
In the 2019 “Costs of War” report, Boston University scholar Neta C. Crawford provides the most comprehensive total estimate of U.S. war spending. Her report is drawn from totaling Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) requests and State Department requests from FY2001-2020, finding that all wars during that time cost $2.09 trillion. Of that, $978 billion (roughly 47%) was due to Afghanistan.

She further totals related costs of war, including the estimated increase to the Department of Defense base budget due to war, medical and disability care for post-9/11 veterans, interest on borrowing for OCO funding, and Homeland Security spending for prevention and response to terrorism.

We use these figures to estimate total war spending in Afghanistan, finding that including indirect costs puts the full cost of Afghanistan war spending at just over $2 trillion to date. When accrued obligations for veterans’ medical and disability are included, this figure rises to $2.5 trillion.

Potential Savings
While the situation remains tense and future prospects still unclear since President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton departed the White House in the wake of stalled negotiations with the Taliban, the President and those in his Administration seem nevertheless committed to some form of withdrawal. In late October 2019, news broke that the Pentagon had begun to quietly draw down troops, despite the lack of a formal peace process.

We analyze prospects based on the plans thus far announced – 5,400 troops to be withdrawn from the country – along with several hypotheticals including a full drawdown and remaining residual force in the country. Our analysis shows that the U.S. could save between $152 – $280 billion over the next four years, in addition to $58 – $106 billion in future veterans’ military and disability obligations. This puts total potential savings between $210 and $386 billion. The exact magnitude of the savings would also depend on the size of any residual ground presence, and other factors like foreign assistance and potential costs associated with covert CIA operations.

Bigger Picture
Rethinking Afghanistan collects and reviews all available analyses of involvement in Afghanistan, both past and future, and presents realistic foreign policy answers for each common objection to restraint.