Sure, $5.7B is a stiff price to pay to get out of Afganistan -- but consider the alternative
"The size of the withdrawal is mind-boggling. But with the 'fiscal cliff' approaching fast, it's worth taking a moment to realize that the costly Afghan operation is going on a credit card, along with the $1 trillion or more spent in Iraq."
-- Washington Post "Fine Print" columnist Walter Pincus,
in "The high cost of disengagement"
in "The high cost of disengagement"
Just two or three weeks ago I wrote ("Walter Pincus wonders how Americans lost the will to pay for our wars") about this astonishing break with previous American practice, by which the Bush regime broke with all precedent by "paying" for its pernicious adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan by running a tab -- a practice candidate Barack Obama roundly deplored but once in office was either unable or unwilling to change.
It has never been easy to pay for wars, but until now successive U.S. governments took it that there was no way around it. Of course there still isn't. Eventually the bills have to be paid. But when you use the sleight of hand of essentially putting it all on credit cards, you may be able to avoid embarrassing public discussion of the size and monstrousness of these expenditures.
Now Walter Pincus, following the mandate of his "Fine Print" column, has taken a close look at a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that says "it's going to cost an additional $5.7 billion over the next year or two just to transfer or return most of the troops and equipment we shipped into that country." That's on top of the "nearly $600 billion [spent] over the past 10 years putting combat forces into Afganistan."
"The size of the withdrawal is mind-boggling," says Walter. "But with the 'fiscal cliff' approaching fast, it's worth taking a moment to realize that the costly Afghan operation is going on a credit card, along with the $1 trillion or more spent in Iraq." And he reminds us: "Iraq and Afghanistan are the first U.S. wars in which the American public was not asked to pay a cent in additional taxes."
For those who are curious, Walter provides a detailed sketch of how this withdrawal budget breaks down, and also explains some basic facts of life that explain why Afghanistan-withdrawal costs will be substantially higher even than Iraq-withdrawal costs were. Considering how difficult (and how expensive) it has been to get personnel and equipment into land-locked and barely accessible Afghanistan, it will be at least as difficult (and as expensive) to get them out -- unlike Iraq, where we had easy road access to safe seaports for relatively easy and cheap maritime transport. In both cases, however, even the sky-high costs of withdrawal were only possible thanks to long, detailed planning.
The Iraq drawdown showed the importance of early planning. Withdrawal plans began in 2008, three years before the December 2011 final departure of U.S. combat troops. In Afghanistan, the Marine Corps and Navy began withdrawal preparations in 2009, the Army in 2010.An obvious question, I suppose, is whether we should be put off by the drawdown price tag. And the answer, it seems to me, is of course not! Does it make more sense to continue pouring those staggering piles of cash (or charge slips) down those ratholes?
At some point we really do have to have to face up to the implications (I'm restraining myself from using the word consequences) of disastrous policy choices. Otherwise we have an adjunct to the concept of "too big to fail": too expensive to pull the plug on.
The militarists -- and, come to think of it, advocates of generally doody-brained right-wing boondoggles -- like to play this as an "aha!" card. It was extraordinary enough that the subject of cuts in military expenditures even came up at the time they were written into the now-infamous sequester (and they probably wouldn't have found their way in if anyone believed at the time that the sequester might actually happen) and right-wing ideologues suddenly warn of the economic consequences: Jobs will be lost!
Of course when it comes to making other kinds of spending cuts, cuts of programs that actual provide useful human services, the Righties never worry about that. Screw all those effing public-service workers! And never mind if our cities -- and our rural precincts too -- go to hell! It's wasteful government spending. But then, as we know, when it comes to truly wasteful government spending, notably the sacred boondoggles of "national security" profligacy, even the hardest of die-hard "fiscal conservatives" become blooming Keynesians. It's the phenomenon of "military Keynesianism." Perhaps "economic stimulus" becomes real to them -because so many of them are pocketing sizable chunks of the megabucks poured down those drains?
And did you notice how our beloved munitions industry, faced with sudden talk about even the possibility of tightening gun restrictions, started threatening to pull the plug on the economy of Connecticut, and by extension any other state that has sold its soul to the Devil of the armaments industry? As the old saying goes, lie down with dogs and you'll wake up with fleas.
We don't like to talk about it much, but one of the few things we still produce for which there's a robust world market is arms. How much suffering and death around the world takes place to satiate the greed of the arms merchants? The obvious consequence is that it's unlikely that there's any country less enthusiastic about arms reduction than ours -- with this lovely new wrinkle that we better shut up about it if we know what's good for us. Otherwise the arms makers will make us sorry.
Walter Pincus ends his new piece: "[I]t's worth paying attention to the monetary and human costs of getting into and out of military ventures so that perhaps the country will be better prepared next time." Which seems to me a serious understatement. A pair of pointless and doomed, indeed pernicious, military involvements of staggering dimenson were undertaken with essentially no concern for the cost. Of course if they had been evaluated simply in terms of desirability and feasibility of goals they would never have been undertaken in the first place. As our colleague Ian Welsh points out, "In policy terms, the kind thing to do is usually the right thing to do."
I know that this kind of thinking is regarded as "naive," as "pie in the sky." But if Ian's thinking had been applied seriously to the decisions to embrace the Iraq and Afghanistan boondoggles, having as their result not improving but compromising our national security, creating new, more determined and long-lived enemies, might we not have thought better? If any consideration had been given to the consequences of turning over such a large segment of our economy to the Merchants of Death, might we not have arrived at different thoughts about the kinds of subsidies we wished to apply, or not?
I sincerely hope that Walter is right, that if Americans scrutinize the costs of extricating ourselves from these holes we dig ourselves, we'll think better about it the next time the subject comes up. But I think that lesson might be learned better if we were getting occasional reports from the cells where "Big Dick" Cheney, "Chimpy the Prez" Bush, and Donnie Rumsfeld are serving their life-without-possibility-of-parole sentences.