Putting Afghanistan in the Rear View Mirror

Rethinking “Contingency” Operations

By Heather Penney

12/6/2010 – With the deluge of media and congressional attention on the budget, deficit, and national debt, it is surprising that the connection between our current/future economic predicament and OEF/OIF has been conspicuously absent from the debate. According to the CRS, costs for OEF/OIF/GWOT since 9/11 have totaled $1.121 Trillion dollars, not including the 2011 request. 94% of these costs are attributed to DoD. Those are sunk costs.

Source : Belasco Amy, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, 
and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,
Congressional Research Report, September 2, 2010, page 3 
(www.fas.org)

What about the future? The 2011 request for Iraq is $51B, and OEF is $120B. The 2011 costs – one year of operations –generate 170% the “efficiency savings” the Department is seeking over the next five years through cutting service capabilities. CRS estimates that if we still have 60,000 troops in the region by 2015, the bill over the next decade will be approximately $588B. This doesn’t include the non-discretionary entitlements from wounded warriors and increased end strength that are inevitable. Now that we are sending (at least) one company of tanks to Afghanistan and 2014 is the new target date, this higher estimate is quite probable if not conservative.

So why isn’t our occupation of Iraq and more significantly, Afghanistan, on the table when it comes to the budget debates? What are our real strategic objectives and essential national interests in “stabilizing” these regions? And does the cost (both in budget dollars and in indirect impact to our economy, deficit, and debt) required to “win Afghanistan” satisfy existential necessities? That is, are we in a situation where we cannot afford not to win Afghanistan? Quite the contrary – in fact, we are in a situation where we can’t afford to stay.While it is not in our interest to have escalation of conflict expand throughout the region, we need not occupy to contain Afghanistan. It is unlikely that “winning” Afghanistan is reasonably possible nor would it be enduring.

Are we in a situation where we cannot afford not to win Afghanistan? Quite the contrary – in fact, we are in a situation where we can’t afford to stay. While it is not in our interest to have escalation of conflict expand throughout the region, we need not occupy to contain Afghanistan. It is unlikely that “winning” Afghanistan is reasonably possible nor would it be enduring.

Furthermore, the opportunity cost of not drawing our forces down is too great. We are pouring our treasury at Afghanistan and Iraq and deepening our debt which makes us more vulnerable to aspiring global players using their economies. Our primary policy objective there should be to accelerate the transition of security to Afghanistan with minimal investment and presence. The state need not be perfect, completely stable, or mirror U.S. democracy. We are losing the cost imposition equation and have neglected our interests in other parts of the globe because we are mired in an occupation.

Source : Belasco Amy, The Cost of Iraq... (ibid), page 10
(www.fas.org)

Iraq and Afghanistan are conflicts of choice. Contrary to the rhetoric going in, neither regime posed existential threats. Even Al Qaida is not an existential threat. If we want to hunt terrorists, then we should go hunt terrorists (ala El Dorado Canyon or more recently, Yemen). Hold terrorist strongholds, camps, and leadership at risk 24/7 irrespective of boundaries or borders.

But violent regime change and occupation are not a smart use of force (nor is it smart foreign policy), and a “secure and stable” Afghanistan is not the solution to exterminating Islamic extremism. We must focus on basic, foundational capabilities as real budgets decrease. We cannot afford to dilute our dollars on mission-creep in near-sighted efforts to be relevant to the short-term. It may be counter-intuitive, but we need to invest in those critical things that are difficult, take a long time to do, and are expensive: high-tech asymmetric capabilities and operational mission-sets that require significant training, proficiency, and expertise.

It may be counter-intuitive, but we need to invest in those critical things that are difficult, take a long time to do, and are expensive: high-tech asymmetric capabilities and operational mission-sets that require significant training, proficiency, and expertise.

We can do things that are easy and cheap anytime – and on a quick turn. Investing our DoD dollars in service specific, unique, and existential capabilities allow us to address global challenges and avoid the losing end of strategic surprise. What are those things that really are existential in nature, and what are those capabilities we need to secure our allies, balance power, and maintain our status as a superpower?

Hanging our allies out to dry because we are unwilling to fund a US military strong enough to be the dominant/sponsoring partner fractures alliances, creates regional arms races, invites global instability, and opens opportunities for aspiring powers – and leaves us no ability to shape, influence, deter, or balance regional dynamics.

It makes no sense for the American public to throw money at expeditionary adventures to secure someone else’s failing nation when we aren’t willing to invest in a military that is capable of protecting and advocating the critical interests of the United States.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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