The Cost of a Post-2014 U.S. Force

Thursday’s New York Times reports that the outgoing International Security Assistance Force commander, U.S. Marine General John Allen, has submitted three options for a post-2014 “residual force” in Afghanistan

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Army photo / Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

A paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team heats noodles over a fire last June in southern Ghazni province.

Thursday’s New York Times reports that the outgoing International Security Assistance Force commander, U.S. Marine General John Allen, has submitted three options for a post-2014 “residual force” in Afghanistan.  These consist of a “low-risk” option of 20,000, a “high-risk” option of 6,000, and a “medium-risk” option of 10,000.

While none of the newspaper’s sources are on-the-record, this sounds close enough to the methodology used to determine the Iraq force levels in both 2009 and 2011 that it has the ring of truth.  Further, Saturday’s Wall Street Journal claims that the Pentagon—on White House orders—is generating options for 3,000, 6,000, and 9,000.

Missing from this analysis is the scale of the monies we are talking about to maintain force levels in the Afghanistan conflict.

In way of background, Afghanistan is an incredibly expensive war to maintain, as it is a landlocked country, surrounded by mountainous, poorly developed neighbors.  Therefore, delivering everything to the soldiers deployed in the country—even in Kabul or Kandahar, let alone the remote regions—incurs huge transportation costs.

The general “rule of thumb” figure that the Afghanistan policy-making community uses is $1 million per soldier per year.  So the current 66,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan cost a staggering $66 billion (let’s say plus or minus 10%).

For point of comparison, the recently passed “fiscal cliff” deal is expected to raise only an additional $50-60 billion next year (see the WSJ’s calculation here, though slightly different from what actually passed).

So using our back-of-the-envelope math, we can price the three options that General Allen has allegedly forwarded at $6, $10, and $20 billion, annually.  This is, of course, exclusive of other costs such as military salaries, costs from other agencies (most notably the State Department), assistance to the Afghan government, and the cost of moving all the accumulated U.S. military equipment and property out of Afghanistan.  Further, as the military loses the larger economy of scale, we should expect the price to go up.  As we start getting down to a smaller force, the fixed costs will generate a larger percentage, and we will save less for each soldier who is redeployed home.

Let’s stipulate, just for argument, that we have national interests in Afghanistan.

But how valuable are those interests, when it comes down to zero-sum application of dollars?  Do we have $20 billion, per annum, worth of national interest in Afghanistan?  In a zero-sum world, in what strategic interests around the world might we invest that $20 billion?

Just as a thought experiment, what might the Africa community do to eliminate the Lord’s Resistance Army, or ameliorate suffering the Democratic Republic of the Congo with $20 billion?  What could be done in North Africa for $20 billion?  For that matter, how might $20 billion improve our border with Mexico?  I will  bracket, for purposes of this posting, the possibility that $20 billion, let alone the $60-odd billion currently being spent, could be invested domestically in the United States, or simply not borrowed for greater fiscal stability.

What I find fascinating about the Afghanistan debate is not that dollar figures are not compared, but that they are not even mentioned.

Those promoting the extension of current force levels in Afghanistan talk about justification for these troops remaining here, here and here, but elide over the costs.  And $60-ish billion is real money, even by DOD or Federal budget standards.

It might add clarity to all kinds of things—perhaps even our grand strategy itself, let alone the budgetary component—were we to start trying to quantify just how much we care (in terms of national interest, not humanitarian concerns) about various foreign programs.

Then we could attempt to scale our effort to that level, rather than write “blank checks” for quasi-utopian schemes.  I suspect this would lead to a different treatment of large residual forces in an attempt to cement dubious initial gains.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation. A retired Army officer, his last assignment was Director for Iraq at the National Security Council, after two tours in Baghdad. He also spent a year in Afghanistan as a Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University and is on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.