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Not spending $1 trillion on Afghanistan?

COMMENTARY | September 28, 2010

President Obama reportedly said he’s not about to spend a trillion dollars on Afghanistan. George Wilson recommends that he take a look at a new Congressional Research Service report, or at the writings of Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes.

By George C. Wilson

In his new book, “Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward quotes President Obama as telling Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton, “I’m not spending a trillion dollars” in Afghanistan. But guess what? The United States has already spent or committed a third of that $1 trillion on Afghanistan before Obama and his generals have launched their major offensive in the country with almost 100,000 U.S. troops.

The dollars spent or committed to combat terrorism since the attack on the United States by four hijacked airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, have been tracked down and added up in a report just issued by the Congressional Research Service. The total through the Pentagon’s FY10 supplemental comes to $1.12 trillion, according to CRS, with no end in sight.

To date, the CRS report by Amy Belasco figures the extra, or “incremental,” cost of adding the burden of fighting terrorists on top of what the U.S. military was already doing before 9/11 comes to $750.8 billion for Iraq and $336 billion for Afghanistan. Another $28.5 billion went for making it harder for terrorists to attack us, while $5.5 billion in the new CRS report is listed as “unallocated.”

The $750 billion tally for Iraq by the nonpartisan CRS makes the Bush administration bean counters and policy makers look like fools.

Larry Lindsey, President George W. Bush’s economic adviser and head of the National Economic Council, estimated the Iraq war would cost $200 billion. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ridiculed that estimate as “baloney.”

He and Mitch Daniels, Bush’s OMB director, figured the Iraq war would cost between $50 billion and $60 billion. Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, went so far as to say that Iraq’s oil revenues would finance much of the reconstruction. That would be wrong, wrong, and more wrong.

So bear those predictions in mind when you hear officials estimating the total cost of the war in Afghanistan that Obama has embraced. The Woodward book makes Obama sound like a president who wants to hurry up and Afghanize the war and get U.S. troops the hell out of there as soon as possible.

President Richard Nixon tried to Vietnamize his war and failed. Obama’s field commander, Gen. David Petraeus, sounds like he wants to fight terrorists forever in Afghanistan and every place else in the world. Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying this about Afghanistan: “You have to recognize that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” In short, there is no light at the end of Petraeus’ tunnel.

The upcoming midterm elections should tell us whether the voters stand with Obama or Petraeus on Afghanistan.

Substitute the word Afghanistan for Iraq and what Joint Economic Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y., said back on Feb. 28, 2008, will be tested in November: “It’s becoming clear to all Americans — Republicans, Democrats and independents — that by continuing to spend huge amounts in Iraq, we’re prevented from spending on important goals and vital needs here at home. The backbreaking costs of this war to American families, the federal budget and the entire economy are beyond measure in many ways, and it’s becoming the first thing after the loss of life that people think about and talk about.”

Congress, which so far has given presidents Bush and Obama almost all the money they asked for to wage the Global War on Terror, can be fickle if it decides a war has become more drag than lift politically.

The lawmakers gave President Lyndon Johnson and then Nixon almost every dollar they asked for to wage the Vietnam War and then turned off the money spigot. This past could be prologue for Obama if the war continues to go badly in Afghanistan and American voters sense their dollars are doing little more than making corrupt Afghan leaders richer.

But no matter which political party prevails in the elections, there is another cost elephant in the nation’s living room.

This is the cost of treating the visible and invisible wounds of the veterans who are fighting these wars. House Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner is among those in Congress who have looked at the tidal wave of bills about to crash over us and recoiled in horror.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and co-author Linda Bilmes in their book “The Three Trillion Dollar War” write that “the Pentagon keeps two sets of book[s]. The first is the official casualty list posted on the Defense Department website. The second, hard-to-find set of data is available only on a different website and can be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. This data shows that the total number of soldiers who have been wounded, injured or suffered from disease is double the number wounded in combat.”

The authors assert that this second list can be “tied directly to service in the war,” thus pushing up the tidal wave of veterans’ bills Filner and other lawmakers are already worried about to new heights.

This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDaily.


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