Opinion: How to finance the war in Afghanistan?


BOSTON — The last time America had to borrow money to finance a war was during the Revolution and a cash-strapped Continental Congress took loans from France to fund a surge against the British.

That worked out pretty well.

But it’s hard to feel the spirit of 1776 in President Obama’s journey to China. He went as a representative of a borrowing nation to its primary lender amid a call for yet another costly military surge in the Long War that is escalating in Afghanistan even if it is hopefully winding down in Iraq.

As the president completes his journey to Asia, he returns to Washington to face what is the most consequential foreign policy decision of his presidency, a decision that this administration has not yet fully thought through.

That is whether to heed the counsel of his top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and call for a surge of 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan.

Obama is said to also be pondering a middle ground of calling up somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 more troops.

Or, and this is shaping up as a long shot, he and his team of rivals in the Pentagon and the State Department could decide to rebuff McChrystal. In this scenario, Obama would refocus the mission but still hold to the general counterinsurgency plan that he originally spelled out in March and which increased U.S. troops by 21,000 to a total U.S. presence of 68,000 troops. That surge was just completed this fall.

From my experience talking with counterinsurgency experts and meeting with U.S. and coalition counterinsurgency leaders and trainers in Afghanistan over the summer, I am hoping Obama chooses to hold to the existing troops level. I am hoping he does that while refocusing his original plan to be more targeted on counterterrorism than the wider goal of classic counterinsurgency against the Taliban. He should stick to his guns and hold at the troop levels he has and make the troops who are there better and more effective and provided with better equipment and intelligence assets to get the job done. As I said in an earlier column, less is more right now in Afghanistan.

Every empire in history has regretted an escalation in Afghanistan and it is hard to see how America would be any different.

I do not envy the president and his team in making a very difficult and costly decision at a very hard time economically in America. Few presidents in history have had to face so many fateful decisions in their first year in the White House.

But despite all the pondering the president has given to whether to increase troops, it seems he has given far too little consideration to the overall cost of escalating the war and how it will undercut his ability to fund the ambitious domestic policy agenda he has set out from bank bailouts to health care reform.

With all the debt piling up, it seems to me there is a clear connection between his trip to China and these war costs in Afghanistan.

If you think about it, the hundreds of billions we borrow from China every year will go at least in part to fund the enormous cost of an escalation of troops in Afghanistan, a cost — in terms of lives and treasure.

The war in Iraq will end up costing this country more than 2 trillion dollars, according to the conservative projections of Linda Bilmes, an economist at the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The cost is higher still if you include interest on the debt, interest which will in a large measure be paid to China.

Bilmes has worked closely with the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to do the long math on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to factor in not just the military budget and the interest on the debt but also the extraordinary high cost on every level of soldiers who are wounded physically and mentally by war.

Bilmes is credited with highlighting the failure of the administration of President George W. Bush to give an accurate cost assessment of a war that escalated several hundred times beyond the original projection of just $50 billion to $60 billion made by the Pentagon at the start of the war in 2003. She’s been proven right and she’s worried that the Obama administration may be fatefully making another miscalculation on the cost of war in Afghanistan.

And we’ve hit a profound turning point in Afghanistan. In this new budget year, which started Oct. 1, for the first time, the war in Afghanistan will cost Americans more than the war in Iraq.

And, as Bilmes points out, fighting in Afghanistan is more costly than it is in Iraq because of the terrain and the difficulty in supplying troops and evacuating the wounded. She estimates that Afghanistan is as much as 1.6 times more expensive per soldier than Iraq.

“While this administration has brought great military expertise to thinking this through, there needs to be a greater focus on the cost. How are we going to pay for this? People are still not looking at the long term costs,” said Bilmes.

And so as the President stares out the window of Air Force One pondering the dark skies in the long journey back to Washington, one can only hope that he has thought through the extraordinary cost — on every level — of calling for an escalation of troops in Afghanistan.