Controversy over the brutally botched and long-overdue U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to swirl, but very few people, particularly on the right, have suggested that these failures should trigger a reevaluation of our military’s spending priorities.
Congress is in the process of passing the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which, prior to the predictable collapse of the Afghan Security Forces, still planned to throw money at Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s request for $715 billion in Department of Defense funding to Congress included $3.3 billion for the now-defunct Afghan Security Forces and $14.3 billion worth of unspecified “direct war requirements” that cover Afghanistan, on top of the $27.8 billion for “enduring requirements.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee finished marking up the bill in July and largely signed off on this spending, even though the $17.6 billion in Afghan Security Forces funding and “direct war requirements” added to about the same amount of money the U.S. spent on the war in Afghanistan in 2003, and about $2 billion more than it did in 2004, when we had around 15,000 troops in the country. The House Appropriations Committee’s version of the bill, which appropriates $705 billion for our national defense, settled on just over $3 billion for the Afghan Security Forces in their own markup in July, but on the precondition that “the Afghanistan Security Forces are controlled by a civilian, representative government that is committed to protecting human rights.” But the Afghan Security Forces are no more, and the fact remains that the government was poised to spend at least $17 billion more on a war we’re no longer fighting—as if losing wasn’t ugly enough.
The NDAA was already on a collision course for a conference committee, as the Senate Armed Service Committee’s version plans to appropriate $777.9 billion for national defense, while the House Armed Services Committee appropriated about $745 billion for our national defense—both of which are much higher than the aforementioned funding provided by the House Appropriation Committee. Now, these vested committees will have to figure out what to do with those Afghanistan dollars.
Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said Americans “shouldn’t expect any spending in or on the Afghan army,” in the final version of the bill, but that some of those dollars are likely to “be allocated to the unanticipated costs of the evacuation operation.” The rest of the money devoted to maintaining the Afghan Security Forces are likely to “disappear” in the final bill, but will be diffused in other military operations and maintenance, Adams added.
Right now, the United States maintains750 bases in more than 80 different countries around the world, with at least 170,000 troops deployed overseas in 159 countries. While it may be an extreme case, the war in Afghanistan nevertheless reflects all the other tomfoolery happening within the American military throughout the world.
A review of how, where, and when U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent for our purported national defense is desperately needed. As is Congressional leadership, which is painfully lacking at the moment, because any comprehensive review process will only be as effective as the political will to act on its findings. If such a review were to be properly carried out, America will likely find Congress has been devoting too much of its annual budget to defense spending, and so perhaps policy makers would find they have a chance to reapportion funds to rebuild our nation at home, rather than Potemkin villages of democracy abroad.
What unfolded in Afghanistan during the nearly 20 year quagmire presents a perfect case study. Given the Afghan War was the longest military conflict in which the United States has ever engaged, as well as the primary sphere of battle for our nation’s soldiers since the drawdown of the Iraq War, Afghanistan is an arena wherein a competent government’s military would have tried to find the most effective way to stretch every defense dollar.
Precisely the opposite unfolded, and senior U.S. military officials have admitted as much.
In 2008, Congress created the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) with the authority to perform audits and investigate waste, fraud, and other forms of corruption occurring in Afghanistan. SIGAR Special Inspector General John Sopko directed $11 million towards a tangential investigation known as “Lessons Learned” in 2014, dedicated to finding policy failures that led to the protracted conflict. The office went on to interview more than 600 military officials, soldiers, and others with firsthand experience from the war in Afghanistan, as well as various government reports and statistics. At the time, these officials did not think their comments to these government interviewers would become public, but, in December of 2019, the Washington Post published many of the “Lessons Learned” interview materials and documents after Freedom of Information Act litigation.
U.S. forces were largely successful in beating back the Taliban and relegating the influence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the initial phase of the war. However, various forms of mission creep soon set in, foremost among them an attempt to turn Afghanistan into some kind of Jeffersonian democracy.
However, by 2006, it had become evident to Army Col. Christopher Kolenda, who was deployed to Afghanistan on several occasions and advised three U.S. generals tasked with overseeing the conflict, that the United States was funding the creation of a government “self-organized into a kleptocracy,” headed at the time by President Hamid Karzai.
“I like to use a cancer analogy,” Kolenda told SIGAR interviewers. “Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.”
Corruption wasn’t just prevalent among the figures chosen by the United States to lead Afghanistan into this brave new world. It infected the officers and rank-and-file of the Afghan Security Forces. Enlistment fraud was rampant, as Afghan fighters tried to collect the U.S. backed salaries of non-existent soldiers (not to mention the recruitment fraud occurring on the domestic front). U.S. military equipment would often go missing, only for officials to discover it had later been seized by, or sold off to, the Taliban. Afghan military officers would withhold stipends allocated to widows of fallen Afghan soldiers in exchange for sex acts, and engage in bacha bazi, the pedophilic abuse of Afghan “dancing boys,” sometimes on U.S. military bases, all while earning their own U.S.-backed military salaries.
Nevertheless, “every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” to persuade not only establishment Washington, but also the American public, that the United States mission in Afghanistan was worthwhile, Army Col. Bob Crowley claimed. Crowley, a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, added, “surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing,” Afghanistan War czar to both the Bush and Obama administrations and three-star Army Gen. Douglas Lute admitted in a 2015 interview. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
The Afghan Papers made it abundantly clear government officials tasked with handling the crisis in Afghanistan, and the bureaucratic outfit tasked with interviewing them to provide oversight, knew the American blood and treasure soaked into Afghanistan’s sands were all for nought. Yet, America kept pouring money into the conflict for the next six years. From 2015 to 2020, the United States poured about $50 billion a year, totaling over $300 billion, into the Afghanistan conflict.
For starters, SIGAR’s “Lesson Learned” reports, of which there are now seven to date, were written by bureaucrats, for bureaucrats. The reports pulled punches from the worst takeaways of the conflict. They were never meant to trigger second guessing by Congress or the American people, which became abundantly evident when the Washington Post sought to make the documents public and the government scrambled to redact certain sections and withhold others.
The longer answer to that question lies in the incentive structure President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation about in his farewell address in 1961: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Exist and persist it has, as our national defense has simultaneously bureaucratized and corporatized in the six decades since Eisenhower delivered those famous lines.
Today, military officials hop between public service (whether in Congress or the executive branch) and defense contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. While the ex-brass employed as lobbyists do the bidding of these multi-billion dollar companies outright, those in official government positions do it tacitly by keeping their head down and granting them contracts for the prospect of future employment. This doesn’t exclude the possibility that having personnel continuity offers some kind of utility for America’s defense; however, it is to say this system is more than susceptible to corporate profits commandeering the national interest.
So, we just keep on spending.
Our tab in Afghanistan now totals over $2 trillion dollars, equivalent to $300 million per day or $50,000 for each one of Afghanistan’s 40 million people—setting the country up for one hell of a hangover. If the United States confiscated all of the wealth from Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and about 30 other billionaires that top the charts of America’s most wealthy, the United States still wouldn’t have amassed enough money to pay for the war in Afghanistan.
About three-fourths of that money—around $1.5 trillion—went towards actually fighting the war, according to the New York Times, although the details of where these defense dollars remain relatively unknown. Uncle Sam spent $10 billion on counternarcotics operations to stem Afghanistan’s opium poppy industry (the largest in the world), only to see the hectares of land occupied by opium fields nearly quadruple from 2002 to 2017. Around $90 billion went towards recruiting and training Afghanistan’s corrupt security forces, which all but evaporated in the span of two days and paved the road for the Taliban’s march into Kabul. Almost $25 billion was shelled out for Afghanistan’s economic development, and another $30 billion on programs that included refugee aid, food, and disaster assistance, among other things, which SIGAR notes were heavily exploited.
This is just the initial tally. U.S. taxpayers are expected to pay more than $600 billion in interest on loans taken by the government to fund the war just by 2023. Moreover, already more than $350 billion worth of medical and disability care has been dispensed for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. By 2059, the United States can expect to spend $1.4 trillion on War on Terror veterans.
Most Americans are likely aware of the competing narratives regarding the U.S. government’s military budget forwarded by hawks and doves—admittedly crude terms, but also useful for the sake of simplicity.
Hawks, proponents of high military spending for a robust national defense, point out that the share of defense spending relative to America’s gross domestic product (GDP) has generally trended downward since the end of the Second World War. In 1945, defense spending amounted to about 40 percent of the nation’s total economic output. Through the Vietnam War, the United States’ share of military spending to GDP hovered around 10 percent. Prior to the Reagan buildup, which thrusted defense spending upwards to just under 7 percent of GDP, it fell to just under 5 percent. By the late 90s, defense spending had once again fallen to about 3 percent of GDP. Despite the War on Terror and the great recession, defense spending never eclipsed 5 percent of GDP, and currently lies at about 3.5 percent of GDP.
The doves, on the other hand, claim to have found a far superior data point: military spending relative to the rest of the world—particularly our enemies. This year, the United States is purportedly supposed to spend roughly $778 billion on defense, $17 billion more than China, India, Russia, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Australia combined. America spends about four times as much on defense as China, over 12 times more than Russia, and more than 30 times as much as Iran—the hawk’s three biggest bugaboos that come to mind.
But to actually settle the debate over what constitutes sufficient defense spending, there must be a thorough and detailed review process of exactly where our military dollars are going. Are taxpayer dollars going towards redundant operations or ineffective missions not in alignment with the purpose of the military or the national interest writ large? Certain gender studies programs for Afghans come to mind. Maybe the United States military is spending too much money on research for flashy new toys (like the F-35) or amassing an unnecessary stockpile of nuclear weapons, while tried and true tools and military equipment have been left in disrepair and disarray.
The military’s top brass doesn’t want to find out. They are more concerned about picking up a phone call from the C-suites of angry defense contractors than answering to an American public that openly despises their wars of choice. The people’s elected representatives have an obligation to answer that question, and, if they must, defund the world’s police.