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By Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS

16 May 13. The United States cannot afford to blunder its way into staying in Afghanistan, or to blunder its way out by making the wrong decisions about whether and how to stay. However, blundering seems to be the present option, complicated by long delays in time-sensitive decisions, debates over whether resources should go to other strategic priorities or domestic programs, and sub-debates over the priority for counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism.

At a time when the Obama administration is being attacked in a pointless witch hunt over Libya, no one seems to really care about—or be in charge of—the war we are actually fighting. Congress seems to have abdicated its responsibility to demand real-world plans and justifications for funding the war, and most of the U.S. public and media are treating the issue with indifference. The end result is that the United States is moving forward toward a self-imposed deadline at the end of 2014 without any effective plan for shaping what comes next.

The U.S. military is trying to sell the mission by exaggerating success. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) wants pretend the war and Afghanistan’s financial crisis don’t matter, and it instead focuses on development as if the fighting and need for stability don’t matter. And the State Department is again talking about creating a “normal” embassy after 2014, when the war is certain to continue and Afghan politics and economics are certain to be anything but “normal.”
Part of the reason may be the fact that the situation is so uncertain that there is no clear case for either staying or leaving. The strategic value of the U.S. commitment is marginal, and the choice of staying in Afghanistan is optional.

Leaving Has Its Costs

Leaving has its costs. One can argue that the size of past, or “sunk,” costs are no reason to stay, but the United States has sacrificed well over 2,000 dead and 18,000 wounded and our allies have lost nearly 1,100 dead. The cost of the war to the United States is well over $600 billion in existing expenditures and will ultimately exceed $1 trillion even if the United States totally leaves the country at the end of 2014 because of the legacy costs of pensions, medical treatment, death benefits, the need to replace equipment and supplies, and the transportation costs of leaving.

This is an immense sacrifice to walk away from if there is a chance of creating a stable Afghanistan at a reasonable cost. It also seems likely that annual costs are likely to drop from a peak annual direct cost for Overseas Contingency Outlays (OCO) of $186.9 billion in FY2008 for both the Iraq and Afghan wars to $87.2 billion for the Afghan war alone in FY2013 and to levels that are likely to be under $20 billion from FY2016 onward.

Depending on the aid and troop contributions from our allies, the actual costs could be much smaller than $20 billion a year, although the United States should not plan on sustained allied funding at the Chicago or Tokyo levels. It should allow for the possible need to make up any allied shortfalls at levels up to contingency military ($5.1 billion) and civil ($5 billion) aid costs of up to a year for at least the initial period from FY2015 to FY2018 and the cost of both maintaining a significant U.S. military and civil presence and contingency costs for emergency U.S. reinforcements. Costs could go well below $10 billion a year under best-case conditions, but no one should ever plan for the best case.

Afghanistan, and especially its leaders, may not be the perfect ally. At same time, the future human cost of leaving affects the lives of at least 26 million Afghans and probably well over 30 million. Of all the arguments for staying, the welfare of the Afghan people has the most moral and ethnical meaning. Nations may not have permanent interests, but

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