Costs of War Hit Home, Politically

The Independent Institute has released a timely report on the costs of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. Among the findings:

-- Thus far, increases in spending on the war in Afghanistan have consumed the bulk of the savings from the drawdown in Iraq. The combined costs of the two wars will amount to nearly $170 billion this year. That's $19 billion less than FY2008, the peak year of the Bush administration's war spending. But it's a modest drop once you consider that spending on Iraq has decreased by almost $100 billion since FY2008. In other words, four out of five dollars "saved" from the drawdown in Iraq were reinvested in the Afghan buildup;

-- Total fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan were higher in 2010 (559) than they were in 2008 (469), the last year of the Bush administration. This is largely because of the Obama administration's tripling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and its more aggressive strategy there, which has in turn led to more than three times as many fatalities there in 2010 compared with 2008;

-- Rising casualties in the ranks of private military contractors have obscured the full human costs of the wars. In the first six months of 2010, more civilian contractors died (250) than military personnel (235).

The Independent Institute report's findings come at a time when both the public and key political leaders are coming to question the costs of the wars, Afghanistan in particular. As Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put it, Afghanistan "does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal conditions." Obama administration insiders have made similar comments, calling the war "simply not sustainable" at its current cost and suggesting that the debate is shifting from "is the strategy working?" to "Can we afford this?"

The war's cost is phenomenal if one looks at it compared to the amounts spent on other national security objectives. For example, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post has observed, "Last year, the United States spent nearly $1.3 billion on civilian reconstruction projects in one district of Helmand province -- home to 80,000 people who live mostly in mud-brick compounds -- about as much as it provided Egypt in military assistance."

The cost concern has been a major factor in turning the public and the Congress against the war, impatient for a drawdown and anxious to hear a clear "end game" strategy from the administration. In a Gallup/USA Today poll taken in early May, 59% of respondents opposed the war and favored bringing the troops home. And the House of Representatives recently came within a few votes (204 to 215) of passing the "Afghanistan Exit and Accountability Act," co-sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC).

Costs aren't the only issue in Afghanistan, but they are the issue most likely to put the Obama administration on the spot as to how they expect to succeed there, and in what time frame. As their own official said, the current state of affairs is "simply not sustainable."

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011).