On October 21, news broke that the Pentagon had been quietly drawing down its troop presence in Afghanistan. Eighteen years after the conflict began, and shortly after peace negotiations had fallen apart in September, Pentagon officials anonymously confirmed that total troop levels could sink as low as 8,600. That’s about what the goal of the now-failed peace negotiations had been. But instead of a formal withdrawal, troops are being cycled out and not replaced as tours end.
Enthusiasm for the conflict in Afghanistan has decreased among the public and among at least some factions in the Trump administration. It’s not hard to see why.
Setting aside the human cost, the price tag for the nation’s longest war is immense, to say the least. In her 2018 “Costs of War” report, Boston University scholar Neta C. Crawford provides the most comprehensive total estimate of overall U.S. war spending by totaling Defense and State Department requests from fiscal year 2001-2018. She finds that all wars during that time cost $2.022 trillion. Of that, $975 billion (roughly 48 percent) was due to Afghanistan.
But direct expenditures alone present an incomplete picture of Afghanistan’s true cost. While there is not currently a standalone report estimating total costs in Afghanistan specifically, an upcoming report soon to be produced by my organization will provide just that. We draw from other reports and budget requests over time to estimate that the total cost of the war, including direct costs as well as indirect costs such as medical and disability care, could be as high as $2 trillion since the war began.
Neither estimate, of course, can even begin to fully account for other unseen and related costs, whether strain on equipment that must be replaced or repaired sooner, or the immense human cost of the conflict that will be present for years to come.
Drawing down U.S. involvement – whether in the open by peace agreement, in secret by cycling out or in another manner entirely – has the potential to save billions and please a nation weary of war.
Most Americans, including most active duty military members and veterans, favor a new direction in foreign policy. They agree with the president’s long-stated position that it is time to wind down our nation’s longest war in Afghanistan. A June 2019 Pew Research Center survey found, in fact, that “majorities of both veterans (58 percent) and the public (59 percent) say the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.”
What’s more, at a time when national priorities are more strained than ever under a $22 trillion national debt and historic deficits, these savings offer President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE an opportunity to reclaim his long-forgotten campaign promises of reducing the deficit and saving taxpayer money.
When examining various cost-of-war studies, our upcoming report identifies the savings of a potential withdrawal at between $150 billion to $280 billion over the next four years. This estimate counts direct war costs alone, and when factoring in other related costs such as veteran health care and wear and tear on equipment, the cost savings could rise to over $400 billion.
Foreign policy goals are complex and ever-changing, to be sure. But as the U.S. role in Afghanistan has shifted and expanded over the years from a strike against the culprits of 9/11, to nation-building, to an undefined and indefinite involvement, the time is ripe for rethinking these goals. Taxpayers should hope President Trump and his administration continue in this direction.