Want to Cut the Deficit? Start by Getting out of Afghanistan

A U.S. mortar team in Afghanistan.

U.S. debt is heading towards "unsustainable levels," according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office. In the last 18 months, the federal debt has swelled from $5.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion.

President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recently proposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare to reduce the debt. Republican leader John Boehner took it one step further, suggesting the normal retirement age be raised to 70, and adding cavalierly that no limit can be placed on war spending.

The budget for the Department of Defense (DoD) is nearly $700 billion. When defense-related expenditures outside the DoD are taken into consideration, the total for defense spending is around $1 trillion. More than half of federal discretionary spending goes to weapons and war.

Making matters worse, "the DoD budget and many of the expenditures on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been un-auditable," wrote Kevin Zeese for OpEd News. "In 2008, the Government Accountability Office found that 95 major weapons systems have exceeded their original budgets by a total of $295 billion," meaning we're actually far past the trillion-dollar mark.

If Obama's Commission is looking for something to cut, the military seems like a glaringly obvious place to start. The cost of keeping one soldier in Afghanistan for a year is estimated at $1 million, and we have almost 100,000 troops there now. That's not money we have; that's money we borrow.

And what have we accomplished in Afghanistan? Before he was fired, General Stanley McChrystal—one of the most fervent proponents of a prolonged mission—referred to the Afghanistan operation as a "bleeding ulcer." Western casualties are at a record high, with 325 international soldiers killed this year so far, and restoring Afghan government control over the country still seems like a pipe dream.

The counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, upon which McChrystal and his replacement General David Petraeus have placed all their chips, requires a long-term commitment, taking possibly decades to rebuild the country and "win hearts and minds." But, as Michael Hastings wrote in Rolling Stone, "Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on Earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude towards U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile."

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, 33,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. According to McChrystal's "insurgent math," for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.

Instead of trying to rebuild Afghanistan, working with Afghan President Hamid Karzai while he simultaneously makes deals with the Taliban, our attention—and money—could be better spent on our own country. "Afghanistan is not in our vital interest," said CIA Case Officer Marc Sageman. "There's nothing for us there."

The House of Representatives wrestled last week over an $80 billion war-funding bill (including a $33 billion supplement for Afghanistan), with House leaders attaching over $20 billion in domestic spending to the bill to entice liberal Democrats. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told the Huffington Post, "It just can't be that we have a domestic agenda that is half the size of the defense budget."

Pelosi was one of 162 House members (including nine Republicans) who voted last week for a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, increasing pressure on Obama to initiate an exit strategy by his July 2011 deadline. But Obama continues to resist the pressure, carping that there's been "a lot of obsession" about withdrawal, and insisting that his focus is on making sure the mission there gets completed.

Notice that Obama is careful not to use words like "victory," as he knows there is no such thing in Afghanistan. "They are trying to manipulate perceptions because … victory is not even definable or recognizable," said Celeste Ward, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. "It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," said Major General Bill Mayville.

Obama knows how much this war is costing, how little it's accomplishing and how long it could take, but he seems intent on bending to the will of his generals. When McChrystal asked for 40,000 extra troops last year, Obama gave him 30,000, presumably because he didn't want to look weak on national security. Opponents of COIN, like Vice President Joe Biden, have apparently little clout when Obama has a four-star general bearing down on him.

Even after General McChrystal mouthed off about the administration to Rolling Stone, giving Obama an excuse to fire him, Obama replaced him with General Petraeus, knowing full well that Petraeus would push for the same cross-generational presence in Afghanistan that McChrystal wanted. Politically, the move has been commended because of Petraeus' "success" in Iraq, but it makes the chances of that July 2011 withdrawal happening just as slim as ever.

As to the deadline, Joe Klein wrote in TIME, "Petraeus, McChrystal and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen agreed to this because it wasn't really a deadline. There was no intention of actually pulling troops from the real Afghan war zones in the south and east in July 2011; the assumption was that if things were going well, some forces would stay for years, in gradually diminishing numbers, doing the patient work of counterinsurgency."

Whether it's going well or not, their game plan will be to remain entrenched. The way they see it, "if things are going well, we shouldn't withdraw, because the policy is working. If things aren't going well, we should add more troops," explained Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Many Obama supporters are asking, justifiably so, what happened to the hope and change he promised. Much like with the BP disaster, we're seeing ruinous policies that were set in motion by George W. Bush remain in place. The Minerals Management Service still fails to enforce oil-drilling safety regulations; U.S. troops still die in countries where they don't belong.

After Obama took office, his speech in Cairo allowed us the momentary illusion that he could restore U.S. standing abroad by using "soft power." But as Peter Beinart pointed out in TIME, "America's international allure has always been based less on the appeal of the man in the Oval Office than on the appeal of the American political and economic model." Or as Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, the United States is only "as militarily strong as it [is] economically dynamic and fiscally sound."

If we want to be a global example, the answer is not in policing the planet militarily. We'll earn far more respect and do much more to spread democracy if we close down some of our 1,000 military bases we have scattered across continents and divert that money to cleantech innovation or government job programs. Obviously there are other areas where the budget is hemorrhaging money—such as allowing Wall Street to use the Federal Reserve like a cash machine—but the business of war has proved to be the least productive business of all.

On his show Real Time, Bill Maher compared the United States to a family that spends far more than it brings in but the dad refuses to give up the "big, stupid boat" he bought. "You know what America's big, stupid boat is? It's our empire. We have half a million of our troops in other peoples' countries all over the world. That is our boat," Maher said. "We spend more on weapons than the next top 15 military powers combined. Let's cut it in half … and see if anyone invades us."

Joshua Pringle is a journalist and novelist living in New York City. His journalistic work has been published in several news publications, and he is the senior editor for Worldpress.org.

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