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Af-Pak Security Cannot Be Achieved Without a Cost-Benefit Analysis

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Last week, the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan effort to develop alternatives to the Obama administration's current Af-Pak strategy co-founded by The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons and Richard Vague, released the following poll of conservative attitudes towards the war in Afghanistan, specifically its financial cost.

According to findings, conservative Americans worry that the substantial annual costs of the Afghanistan War will make it much more difficult for the U.S. to reduce the deficit and balance the federal budget by the end of this decade.

Two-thirds, or more, of conservatives in all age and gender groups are worried about the war's high cost. Only a quarter of conservatives believe the U.S. should maintain current troop levels while 66% believe the U.S. should either reduce the number of troops (39%) or begin the process of leaving altogether (27%). A majority of those polled agree that the U.S. government can reduce troop levels without compromising security. Only 28% of Tea Party supporters believe that the U.S. should maintain current troop levels while 64% believe the government should either reduce the number of troops (37%) or begin the process of leaving altogether (27%).

Adding a voice to these findings, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform has become one of the most influential conservatives calling for a serious conversation and cost-benefit analysis of the war. Though he has yet to call for outright withdrawal, Norquist has made it clear that in his opinion, the war in Afghanistan "has been more expensive than not. And it has made America weaker than otherwise." Norquist's views, and his alignment with several center-left thinkers on Af-Pak issues, have sparked their fair share of criticism from the right. In a recent blog post for Commentary Magazine, Council on Foreign Relations fellow and American militarism advocate Max Boot goes as far as to call Norquist's efforts "laughable" and "a line of argument, which if followed to its natural conclusion, should also have led us to pull out of World War II while Hitler or Tojo were still in power or to end the Civil War while Jefferson Davis still ruled the South."

Boot's comments aside, the push by Norquist and other fiscal conservatives to highlight the fiscal costs of the war in Afghanistan raises important questions about the metric by which American security and military operations have been measured in the post-9/11 era. It has become clear that the war in Afghanistan, in stark contrast to conflicts on the level of the Civil War or World War II, is not a war of necessity or national survival, but a war of choice. While this designation doesn't necessarily mean our presence in the Af-Pak region is misguided, it does mean that any measure of the effectiveness of our actions there must take the cost in lives, money and American prestige into account. Norquist's views, and the very existence of the Afghanistan Study Group, serve ultimately as calls for accountability in an area where there has been too little oversight for far too long.

On a certain level one can understand the lack of accountability in the security environment immediately post-9/11. Having been attacked, general feelings among voters and many policy makers equated swift actions and "throwing money at the problem" with making America safer. Both sides have been debating the political and foreign policy faults and implications of the decisions made during this period for the past decade, but the outcome of unbridled security spending is plainly evident in the accounting holes of budgets appropriated for Iraq and Afghanistan, to the post-9/11 expansion of the multi-billion dollar intelligence contracting industry profiled in Dana Priest's "Top Secret America" series. Whatever your views on the US presence in Afghanistan or how best to combat global extremism, both liberals and conservatives can agree that the era of blank government checks in the name of "security" has come to an end. You may not agree with Norquist, those conservatives and liberals who think all cost aspects of the war in Afghanistan outweigh the gains, or the conclusions of the Afghanistan Study Group, but it is undeniable that without a clear set of goals and honest cost-benefit analysis, both security and progress are impossible.