Tag: Afghanistan

Drones Risk Putting US on ‘Slippery Slope’ to Perpetual War

As the New York Times reports, the Stimson Center today released a report warning that “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war.” The Washington Post, the Guardian and Vox all lead their articles on the report with that warning.

The slippery slope point probably isn’t new to most readers. But it’s worth focusing on here, both because the argument is often misstated or misunderstood, and because, in this case, I helped make it. The report’s task force, co-chaired by retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law, included working groups. I was on one that considered, among other things, what danger drones create for U.S. foreign policy. The report largely reflects those we identified: the erosion of sovereignty, blowback from those in targeted countries, drone strikes’ tendency to undermine democratic oversight, and the slippery slope problem.

The report puts those concerns in context. It points out that: drones can serve wise or dumb policies; that most drones are for surveillance or other non-strike uses; and that it is drone strikes that occur off declared battlefields that have generated the most controversy. The report notes that past military innovations, like cruise missiles, raised similar concerns by making waging war easier.

The report rejects several common complaints about drones. It denies that they create a reckless, “playstation mentality” among pilots. It explains that drones are not more prone than other weapons cause civilian casualties.

Having delimited the circumstances where drones raise concerns, the report goes into considerable causal detail, at least compared to most reports of this kind, about what the trouble is. The blowback, oversight, and sovereignty problems are relatively easy to understand, in theory. The tricky part is measuring the harm.

Iraq: The Cost of Building a Failed State

“Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”

- Thomas Jefferson

Nobel Laureate George Akerlof uses this edifying quote from Thomas Jefferson to good effect in his foreword of Hossein Askari’s excellent read, Conflicts and Wars: Their Fallout and Prevention (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2012). Indeed, Prof. Akerlof has this to say about Askari’s work:

Professor Askari begins by surveying the burden of military expenditures and of conflicts and wars. Their dollar expenditures, which are close to 15 percent of global GNP, exceed the cost of our financial crisis, of global warming, and what would be required for worldwide poverty reduction.

He bases his approach on three interrelated propositions: aggressors do not pay the full price of their aggression; governments will do nothing to change this state of affairs on their own; and, as a result, the process of reducing conflicts must originate in the private sector.

The U.S. shouldered a heavy load in the Iraq War, to the tune of $2.4 trillion from 2003-2011. As depicted in the chart below, the $2.4 trillion U.S. tab accounted for over 75% of global expenditures in the Iraq War.

If we dissect the $2.4 trillion in U.S. expenditures (see chart below), the picture becomes even clearer and, well, drearier. Iraq was a costly war for everyone involved, including U.S. taxpayers. The annual expenditure rate of the Iraq war comes out to $2991 per U.S. taxpayer from 2003-2011 (based on the level of income tax returns), far higher than the annual tab per US taxpayer for the Afghan fiasco.

President Obama announced to Congress yesterday that he is deploying 275 military personnel to Iraq to secure the American embassy in Baghdad. Here we go, again.

Afghanistan: Obama’s War

Last week, when President Obama made his trip to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he claimed that “America’s war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.” This turned out to be the greatest applause line of his speech. With his assertion, Obama, in effect, declared himself the hero of the Afghan war – the one who put an end to that nightmare. But what Obama failed to mention was that it was his war, and that nothing but unattractive scenarios lie ahead for that war-torn state. Indeed, Afghanistan might just continue to hold down its ranking as the most violent country in the Global Peace Index.

This gloomy prognosis would not have surprised Thomas Jefferson. Yes, Jefferson’s words point to a fundamental truth, “Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”

Graciana del Castillo, one of the world’s leading experts on failed states, has just written a most edifying book on the Afghan war (Guilty Party: The International Community in Afghanistan. Xlibris, 2014). Del Castillo’s book allows us to finally understand just what a fiasco the Afghan war has been.

Why is Afghanistan, as Bob Woodward correctly termed it, Obama’s war? Del Castillo’s sharp pencil work shows that during the period 2002-2013, $650 billion have been appropriated for the Afghan war effort, and a whopping $487.5 billion of that (or 75%) took place after President Obama took office (see accompanying chart).

If one pulls apart that $650 billion price tag, a variety of interesting sleights-of-hand emerge. For example, about $70 billion was disbursed to what is euphemistically termed reconstruction. But, in reality, 60% of this $70 billion (or $42 billion) was actually spent on beefing up the Afghan National Security Forces. And not surprisingly, 75% of the $42 billion spent on national security forces was spent under President Obama’s watchful eye.

To put these outsized numbers into perspective, just consider that the total cost of the Afghan war from 2002-2013 amounts to $7089 per American taxpayer (based on the number of income tax returns). More revealing is the fact that the annual expenditure rate under the Bush administration was already $222 per taxpayer. Then, it exploded to an annual expenditure rate of $1329 per taxpayer under President Obama.

In addition to laying out the phenomenal spending magnitudes on President Obama’s watch, del Castillo demonstrates just how unsustainable all this Afghan spending is. For example, in 2013, the United States financed over $5 billion of the $6.5 billion needed to field the Afghan National Security Forces. This $5 billion of U.S. financing was roughly 10 times more than the Afghan government actually spent from its own revenue sources. In fact, the U.S. funding of Afghan forces was almost three times the total revenue collected by the Afghan government.

To put Afghanistan’s financing gap into perspective, the Afghan government estimates the total fiscal deficiency that they will face over the next decade would amount to a whopping $120 billion. Considering that a July 2013 Washington Post/ABC poll showed that only 28% of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has been worth the cost, it is unlikely that the U.S. would even contemplate continuing to finance the house of cards it has built at anything close to these estimates.

And if this isn’t bad enough, consider that the countryside has been forgotten and neglected during the war years. It is here where 75-80% of the population resides, and produces its livelihood. The rural population has done what is only natural – farm a cash crop. And, the most attractive cash crop in Afghanistan is poppies. Not surprisingly, the poppy plantations have greatly expanded, from 75 thousand hectares in 2002 (near the start of the war), to over 210 thousand in 2013, surpassing the previous peak of 190 thousand hectares in 2007. Just another small example of the collateral damage associated with war and misguided economic policies in Afghanistan.

A Security Agreement with Afghanistan?

A loya jirga, an assembly of 3,000 or so Afghan leaders, is currently reviewing a draft bilateral security agreement that would allow U.S. and other foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan until 2024. Even if it passes with few substantive changes, the agreement is unlikely to please anyone.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he will not sign it, and the few remaining hawks in the United States will point to some military leaders’ call for a much larger force to remain for a generation or more, and accuse President Obama of fecklessness. 

Most Americans, however, are likely to have the opposite reaction: a force of 8,000 is too large, and ten years is too long. A senior administration official’s assertion to the New York Times that “there is no scenario in which those forces would stay in Afghanistan until anywhere near 2024,” isn’t likely to be very reassuring. We’ve heard before that open-ended missions wouldn’t be, or that U.S. troops would eventually come home.  

The president’s supporters, including Secretary of State John Kerry, characterize the agreement as an acceptable compromise that ensures legal protections for Americans stationed in Afghanistan, while also granting the United States access for continued counterterrorism operations, including raids in Afghan homes, said to be one of the last sticking points of the negotiations.

The details must still be worked out, and it is possible that the loya jirga will alter the agreement, or vote it down. If the legal protections for American citizens are stripped out, or if there is no agreement, then the U.S. military mission should be withdrawn entirely from Afghanistan. As in the case in Iraq, when a democratically elected government refused the Obama administration’s reasonable request to shield U.S. troops from the vagaries of Iraqi justice, no deal should mean no troops. This story is far from over, and I will be watching as more details emerge. 

This much is clear, however: The enthusiasm for quixotic nation-building crusades that swept through Washington a few years ago has been replaced by a welcome skepticism. Senior military officers dressed it up with a fancy name–COIN–but the public never bought what they were selling. Now even some scholars within the military establishment are pushing back. A force of 100,000 wasn’t nearly large enough to accomplish a nation-building mission, and, the Obama administration no longer even pretends that that is the true object. A mere 8,000 foreign troops will have trouble enough training an Afghan army beset by illiteracy, absenteeism, and corruption. Any pretense that the few U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan after 2014 can write Afghan legal codes, build a functioning political system, put the country on the road to economic self-sufficiency, and protect the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities is out the window. 

But the critical constraint on any lingering nation-building fantasies is the American people who want this nation’s longest war to be over. They should be forgiven for believing that it would be by now, given that President Obama intoned repeatedly during last year’s campaign that he was committed to ending it.

He hasn’t yet.  

Obsession with Syria Obscures Other Middle East Problems and Pertinent Lessons

The Obama administration and most of the U.S. foreign policy community have become so obsessed with Syria that other important developments around the world are receiving inadequate attention. In a piece over at the National Interest Online, I describe some of the key trends in South Asia and East Asia, two regions that are more important than the Middle East to long-term U.S. security and economic interests.

Crucial events include India’s growing financial woes, the simmering tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas, and Japan’s increased willingness (in large part because of its problems with China) to boost its military spending and adopt a more confrontational stance toward Beijing. 

I also note that Syria is hardly the only source of worry in the Middle East itself. The renewed sectarian violence next door in Iraq is escalating at a frightening pace, Sunni-Shiite tensions in Bahrain are moving from a simmer to a boil, Libya is imploding, and Egypt is perched on the brink of civil war. The problems in Iraq and Libya hold pertinent lessons for those Americans who are eager to embark on a war against Syria. After all, those were Washington’s last two military crusades to oust odious dictators. And to be blunt, they have not turned out well.

Since the early spring, the level of bloodshed in Iraq has reached alarming proportions. And much of the violence reflects bitter sectarian divisions similar to those that make Syria such a fragile political entity. Iraq after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein has not turned out to be the peaceful, democratic, multi-religious society that George W. Bush’s administration touted as the goal of U.S. policy. 

The situation in Libya is even worse. Overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi has led to an awful aftermath. The horrifying September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was an early symptom of the chaos that has made Libya a thoroughly dysfunctional country. Today, a growing number of militias (many of which have rabidly Islamist orientations) have established small fiefdoms throughout the country, and the national government in Tripoli becomes increasingly impotent. Libya’s oil production has plunged, and with it the government’s principal source of revenue. 

Given the dismal outcomes of Washington’s last two military ventures in the Middle East and North Africa, one would think that proponents of a crusade in Syria would be sobered by the experience. But warhawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Representative Peter King, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol appear to have learned nothing from those debacles. More prudent figures in Congress and the broader foreign policy community need to overrule their wishes.

SecDef Should Tackle Personnel Costs

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel went before the House Armed Services Committee to answer questions about President Obama’s proposed FY 2014 military budget. The request for $526.6 billion for the base DoD budget is $3.9 billion lower than the 2012 enacted level. While this reduction is a positive step, it doesn’t go far enough given the nation’s fiscal state and changing military requirements, and it exceeds the spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act by $55 billion.

For more insight on the budget numbers and what this means politically, see my colleague Ben Friedman’s excellent post from yesterday. I want to focus on an area of the budget that cries out for reform: rising personnel costs.

During his testimony, Hagel reiterated the need to rein in such costs, echoing themes from his speech last week at the National Defense University. The president’s budget aims to reduce these costs by cutting end strength, limiting the size of pay increases (to 1 percent), and making “benefit adjustments” to TRICARE. Such adjustments are critical to the department in the long term.

A political battle over these types of reductions is all but certain; however, some members of Congress—perhaps most—will resist. This is unfortunate, especially for fiscal conservatives who understand the need to reform entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, yet fail to see the need to contain skyrocketing costs in personnel and benefits at DoD. The arguments are the same: the current path is unsustainable; reforms are needed or the costs will consume the rest of the budget; and if you implement the reforms sooner, they can be more incremental and less disruptive to the troops. But then again, farsightedness isn’t Congress’s strong suit.

Personnel costs, which account for approximately 32 percent of the budget request (over 45 percent when civilian pay and benefits are included), need to be addressed. The administration has proposed cutting conventional forces—mainly from within the Army and Marine Corps—by 100,000. Hagel has mentioned reducing the civilian workforce, but he hasn’t outlined specifically how he would downsize the “world’s largest back office.”

As Ben Friedman points out, it is also important to keep in mind that the $526.6 billion base budget request does not accurately represent the total cost of national defense. For instance, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs)—war funding—is a separate request. Many believe that as we draw down in Afghanistan, OCO funding will come down. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in yesterday’s hearing that those costs are likely to remain fairly steady for the next few years. Despite the fact that many budget projections count the drawdown in Afghanistan as “savings,” the United States will remain in Afghanistan for years to come.

When you factor in the budgets of other the defense-related items—nuclear weapons management under the Department of Energy, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and Veteran Affairs—total spending on national defense soars to over $900 billion.

There is plenty of room for further cuts in this massive total, especially if we rethink what we ask our military to do. Shedding security commitments and unnecessary missions would allow for a budget that reflects our level of security. But the administration can start by addressing the costs relating to personnel. Otherwise, the future does not look bright for Pentagon budgets. 

Obama’s 2014 Military Spending Request

The Obama administration $640.5 billion fiscal year 2014 request for military spending authority is predictably unrealistic and excessive. Still, political circumstance continues to drag the Pentagon toward fiscal restraint. 

That $640.5 billion includes $88.5 billion for war (a.k.a. overseas contingency operations), $526.6 for non-war spending in the Department of Defense, and another $25.4 billion spending outside DoD, mostly for nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy, which officially counts as “national defense” or budget function 050 spending. 

Those spending levels ignore the budgetary cap set by law and the political reality it reflects. The $552 billion requested in 2014 for non-war “national defense” spending exceeds by $55 billion the spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, as amended by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. Were Congress to enact the president’s budget and leave the cap in place, that total would be sequestered equally across “defense” spending categories, including the war. 

Even if Congress agrees to a grand bargain altering the caps, military spending will likely face additional cuts. Republican resistance to tax hikes and Democratic protection of entitlements mean that any deal they cut will likely again target discretionary spending, more than half of which goes to the military. Of course, Congress’ failure thus far to undo this year’s more onerous sequestration suggests that no deal is likely. An over-under on where the non-war Pentagon budget winds up for 2014 would be closer to $500 billion than $550 billion. 

In a certain light, there is some sacrifice here. The non-war DoD request of $526.6 billion is just $1.2 billion more than last year’s request. Factoring in inflation, it’s about a 1.5 percent cut. This budget would bring the portion of GDP going to the military to 4 percent, versus. 4.3 percent this year, according to the administration. And as Russell Rumbaugh points out, DoD’s projected spending over ten years is down $114 billion from a year ago. 

On the other hand, the request would be a substantial increase over the $493 billion that the Pentagon actually got from Congress this year, after sequestration (see page 10 here). Economic growth is the main reason that a declining portion of national wealth is going to the military. And the cuts scheduled over the decade would arrive mostly in its second half, when someone else is president, meaning that the cuts are basically imaginary

Additionally, the “placeholder” request of $88.5 billion in Pentagon funds for war—the same as last year—is suspiciously high. The administration says they will revise the request once they determine force levels in Afghanistan. But the president already announced plans to halve total U.S. troops there from 68,000 to 34,000 by next February. Even with the increased cost from exiting, the total cost should be far lower. The Pentagon is likely continuing to use the war budget to dodge caps and fund personnel and other non-war functions. Meanwhile, the administration still claims to support a ten-year cap on war spending. As Charles Knight and I explain here, that is a feckless gesture at a good idea. 

One reason why the Pentagon request is unrealistically and unnecessarily large is that it’s part of a struggle with Republicans over the shape of deficit reduction. The White House may be holding military spending cuts in reserve to offer as an alternative to tax increases that Republicans will refuse. Another, more fundamental, reason is that the administration remains wedded to the liberal internationalist species of the militarist consensus that sees U.S. military power as the linchpin to global stability, trade, and liberalization. Here are some newer arguments against that bipartisan consensus. Hopefully the new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, shares some of that skepticism and will demonstrate it once he has time to guide the budget. 

Given our safety, we should stop spending on the military as we did at the height of the Cold War. The Pentagon budget should comply with the spending cap by making choices among missions and goals, rather than clinging to existing alliances and ambitions. The cuts on offer are mostly efficiencies—they require doing the same things more cheaply. Some reforms of this kind, like the administration’s proposal to increase TRICARE fees and start another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, can save big bucks, though Congress will probably ignore them. Bigger cuts require larger choices. If, for example, we shed allies and the pretension that stability everywhere depends on our military presence, far deeper cuts to each service, especially the ground forces, are possible. We could cut a leg or two of the nuclear delivery-vehicle triad without sacrificing deterrence. One virtue of austerity is to encourage these sorts of overdue choices.

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