National Guard at the Capitol: Too costly — and not just in money

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Six weeks after the Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol, Washington remains an armed camp.  No fewer than 26,000 National Guard members were deployed to the city by Jan. 20 — that is, within two weeks of the extremist insurrection and in time for President Biden’s inauguration. 

Many of those troops have returned to their home states, but more than 6,000 soldiers and airmen are still on deployment in the nation’s capital. Moreover, the Department of Defense (DOD) has indicated they will remain there until mid-March. The cost of the operation could amount to $483 million, plus additional funds to pay for the troops’ hotel rooms. It is a sum roughly equivalent to the cost of four F-35 fighters or a Littoral Combat Ship.

The DOD has indicated that after March 15 it will downsize the Guard presence, although not by much. Five thousand troops will remain in the District of Columbia indefinitely. That troop level, consisting of both Army and Air National Guard members, is equivalent to the combined total of forces currently operating in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The cost of the ongoing Guard operation is likely to be around $14.5 million a week, close to the cost of the June 2020 deployment of 5,100 troops to Washington in response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The fiscal burden of the current and projected deployments will be borne by the federal government, not the states, because the troops were ordered in response to a national emergency. As a result, in addition to base pay, the Guardsmen not only will be eligible for benefits such as the Tricare health program but also will accrue time for education benefits under the GI Bill. Ordinarily, education benefits are not available to the National Guard when it operates under the authority of the states, but these are not ordinary times.

It is understandable that in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, the National Guard not only was meant to deploy in force, but to do so under the aegis of the federal government. On the other hand, it is questionable whether the state of emergency that justified the initial deployments should continue to apply well into the foreseeable future.

The face of the capital already has changed markedly since 9/11. Before that infamous day, there were no ugly concrete barriers on Pennsylvania Avenue to obstruct passage near the White House. Nor were federal buildings equipped with metal detectors. These and other inconveniences are the price that Osama bin Laden exacted from the American people, one that we are likely to continue to pay for years to come. Having so many troops guarding government facilities indefinitely will add to the forbidding nature of what was, until relatively recently, still a very open city that welcomed visitors rather than deterred them.

Washington should not become the mirror image of a Third World capital under siege. Some level of military presence clearly is in order, at least until the threat of more rioting is put to rest. But the size of that presence should not exceed those of Afghanistan or Iraq, where American troops continue to come under fire.

When the threat from COVID-19 finally diminishes and high school students once again will visit Washington as graduating seniors, they should not find themselves intimidated by the presence of thousands of armed troops. Nor should they tell their parents, paraphrasing what Rep. Jamie Raskin’s (D-Md.) daughter told him — that they really would rather visit a different city because, in light of the tension permeating D.C., they would prefer not to visit Washington at all.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Capitol attack D.C. National Guard Jamie Raskin Joe Biden Military national state of emergency

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