Tag: war in afghanistan

The Pentagon Budget: Myth vs. Reality

Over the past few weeks, a number of pernicious myths have popped up regarding the Pentagon’s budget. Here I want to dispel these myths with an exhaustive, and exhausting, look at the details. The charts below, compiled with my colleague Charles Zakaib, should help.

The President’s Budget officially requests $613.9 billion for the Pentagon FY 2013, broken down between $525.4 billion in the Pentagon’s base budget, and another $88.5 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)—mainly the war in Afghanistan. This compares to a base budget and OCO of $530.5 billion and $115.1 billion, respectively, for FY 2012. (For other good overviews, see Chris Hellman’s analysis for the National Priorities Project; and Carl Conetta’s “Keeping Pentagon Cuts in Perspective” [.pdf] for the Project on Defense Alternatives).

There are, however, other costs in the budget that should be lumped under the rubric of national defense. For starters, there is about $33 billion in the non-Pentagon portion of what is official classified as “national defense.” Aside from the Pentagon and the wars, that includes the cost of the nation’s nuclear weapons (chiefly within the Department of Energy), and some mandatory spending not captured in the DoD base budget and OCO figures shown above. That brings requested defense spending to $647.4 billion. In addition, as Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information points out, the Obama administration has requested $137.7 billion for Veterans Affairs, and $46 billion for homeland security (that’s a government-wide total compiled by the Office and Management and Budget, excluding the defense portion). Wheeler also points to another $29.4 billion in military retirement and DoD retiree health care costs (these show up under budget functions 550, 650, and 950). All the items above total about $860 billion.

Americans likely spend even more on things loosely connected to national security. For example, there might be some additional intelligence spending that is not captured in the above numbers. Wheeler suggests that we should also count the International Affairs budget ($69.8 bn), and the DoD’s portion of interest on the debt ($63.7 bn). According to Wheeler’s calculations, the actual “defense” budget proposed for 2013 weighs in at a whopping $994.3 billion.

In the charts below, however, I have chosen to focus solely on the Pentagon’s base budget, excluding the wars, and the various other costs mentioned above that are not counted under the “National Defense” budget function (aka 050 for budget geeks).

Chart 1 shows different baseline projections for DoD spending, beginning with President Bush’s final budget in FY 2009 (the dark red line). All are shown in constant 2012 dollars. The President’s Budget for FY 2013, the bright pink line, will average $517 billion over the next decade. The ten-year projections from his earlier budget requests for FY 2011 and FY 2012 are shown as dark blue and light blue, respectively. The dark green line shows the budget levels dictated by the sequestration provisions of last year’s Budget Control Act.

At first glance, the changes appear to be quite significant. The administration claims that its budget achieves $486.9 billion in savings by 2021, but that is in nominal dollars, and measured against the FY 2012 baseline. By my calculations, the gap between the top line shown in the chart (FY 2011) and the most recent request accumulates to $667 billion in real, inflation-adjusted savings over nine years.

Either way, it looks as though a lot of money has been shaved off the budget. Taxpayers and deficit hawks should be pleased. The “defending defense” crowd is appalled.

But there is less here than meets the eye (or more, depending on your perspective). The following three charts show how the Pentagon’s base budget compares to the past 15 years, and the past 35 years. In all cases, the figures are shown in constant, FY 2012 dollars.

The first shows that the Pentagon’s budget, according to the Obama administration’s projections, will average $517 billion over the next decade, slightly more than what we spent in 2008 ($511 bn), and 38 percent more than we spent in 1998 ($375 bn).

The second chart below displays the new projections in a wider historical context, going all the way back to 1976. We spent, on average, $523 billion during the Reagan Era (1981-1990).

Finally, I have included one chart that shows all of these figures, from 1976 to 2022 against a Y-axis starting at $0. Starting the axis at $300 billion (as I have done in the other charts in order to differentiate the projected baselines) can produce the visual effect of apparent sharp increases or declines, when in fact most of these have been quite modest.

The bottom line? People may disagree about whether national security threats are more urgent today, and therefore require much more money than we spent in the 1980s to defeat the Soviet Union. For my part, I have long argued we are vastly safer than we were a generation ago. But it isn’t accurate to say that the Pentagon’s budget has been gutted or cut to the bone.

Trying to Do Everything, Doing Nothing Well

One of the perennial laments about American strategy offered by people like me is that Washington seems incapable of setting out clear priorities in its foreign policy. Everything is urgently important. The business section of today’s New York Times highlights the unfortunate results of this orientation.

You may have heard by now that the United States and other allied countries are currently trying to strangle the Iranian economy to the point where the regime in Tehran feels enough pain—or, more accurately, fears for its survival enough—that it is forced to comply with the preconditions for negotiations and come to the table. This is deemed a Very Important Objective by the Washington foreign-policy elite.

But what you may have forgotten is that the United States is currently undertaking a “pivot” away from the Near East and toward the region where Washington believes the future of international politics lies: the Asia-Pacific. In pursuit of that objective, the United States is currently trying to pull together a coalition of junior partners to help diplomatically and militarily surround China so as to hem it in, should it have any ambition to take charge of the security environment in its region. This, too, is a Very Important Objective.

And before you get ahead of yourself, don’t forget about Poor Little Georgia, which got a chunk of its territory annexed after it lost a war to Russia in 2008. As President Bush pointed out, America’s vital interests and its deepest beliefs are now one. And surely our deepest beliefs don’t involve leaving a flawed-but-promising democratic nation to the tender mercies of a predatory and authoritarian Moscow regime, do they? So let’s agree that keeping Georgia safe is a vital interest.

The problem with this approach is that it’s very hard to pursue these difficult objectives at once. As the Times piece points out, the sanctions coalition against Iran conflicts with a number of these other objectives:

[N]ew threats to Iranian oil flow could have at least one beneficiary: Russia…

For Russian oil companies like Rosneft and Lukoil and the Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP, the international tensions that began over Iran’s nuclear development program last autumn have meant a windfall. Analysts estimate that Iran jitters have added $5 to $15 a barrel to the global price of oil, which means an extra $35 million to $105 million a day for the Russian industry. And the taxes the Russian government has received from those sales have been a political windfall for Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as he campaigns to return as Russia’s president. The extra money has helped further subsidize domestic energy consumption, tamping down inflation.

“It’s good for Putin,” Mr. Mercer said. “In the United States, when oil prices go up, the president’s ratings go down. In Russia, it’s the opposite.”

So our Iran policy helps Russia and Putin, and that’s bad. But wait:

[A]t least one exemption [to the Iran sanctions] under discussion is meant specifically to limit the strategic benefits for Russia, which has been an outspoken critic of American and European strictures against Iran.

The United States and European Union are negotiating an exemption that would continue to provide the former Soviet state of Georgia—a nation that is now a Western ally—an alternative to Russian natural gas. The workaround allows payments to an Iranian company, Naftiran Intertrade, that has a share of the Shah Deniz natural gas field in the Caspian Sea.

The field, managed by the Western petroleum giant BP, is a supplier to Georgia. It is also a potential source for the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which would be managed by a consortium based in Vienna and backed by some Western European governments to create European competition with Gazprom. But the pipeline, seen as a maneuver to weaken Russia’s hand in European energy politics, has been stalled in the planning phase for years.

So we’re carving out an escape hatch for Iranian natural gas to get to Georgia, because we have friends in Tbilisi. Oh, and what about that pivot to Asia? Any trouble on that front?

China, meanwhile, is expected to circumvent the Iranian sanctions with tacit American approval by settling its oil purchases with Iran through banks that have no dealings in the United States. India, for its part, has negotiated to barter wheat for oil, or pay Iran directly in rupees.

Hmm. Oh, and what about our war in Afghanistan, which has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars, with the meter currently running somewhere between $8 and $10 billion per month? What’s going on over there? Maybe the Post has something on that:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At one end of the flower-festooned table sat the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps the world’s most relentless America basher.

At the other end sat Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, who owes his nation’s survival to the United States.

And in the middle was Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country’s complex relationship with Washington swings from pole to pole.

If there existed any conflict among the chief executives of the three neighboring Islamic nations, they certainly weren’t showing it Friday at the close of a trilateral summit in Pakistan’s capital. At a news conference Zardari hosted in his splendid official residence, the theme was fraternal unity as the trio pledged to work for peace and prosperity in a region raging with war and terrorism.

It’s almost as if there are tradeoffs among our objectives.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

America’s ‘Aimless Absurdity’ In Afghanistan

Rasmussen reports that 52% of Americans want U.S. troops home from Afghanistan within a year, up from 43% last fall. Of course, polls are ephemeral snapshots of public opinion that can fluctuate with the prevailing political winds; nonetheless, it does appear that more Americans are slowly coming to realize the “aimless absurdity” of our nation-building project in Central Asia. 

Earlier today (HT: HuffPo’s Amanda Terkel), former Republican senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”: “I don’t think we can afford Afghanistan much longer.” He continued: “The simple fact is that it’s costing us. Good people are losing their lives there, and we’re losing huge amount of resources there … So I think we should have a timeframe for getting out of Afghanistan, and it should be shorter rather than longer.”

Gregg is absolutely right. It is well past time to bring this long war to a swift end. Yet Gregg’s comments also reflect a growing bipartisan realization that prolonging our land war in Asia is weakening our country militarily and economically.

To politicians of any stripe, the costs on paper of staying in Afghanistan are jarring.  Pentagon officials told the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that it costs an average of $400 per gallon of fuel for the aircraft and combat vehicles operating in land-locked Afghanistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development has spent more than $7.8 billion on Afghanistan reconstruction since 2001, including building and refurbishing 680 schools and training thousands of civil servants. Walter Pincus, of The Washington Post, reported that the Army Corp of Engineers spent $4 billion last year on 720 miles of roads to transport troops in and around the war-ravaged country. It will spend another $4 to $6 billion this year, for 250 more miles.

War should no longer be a left-right issue. It’s a question of scarce resources and limiting the power of government. Opposition to the war in Afghanistan can no longer be swept under the carpet or dismissed as an issue owned by peaceniks and pacifists, especially when our men and women in uniform are being deployed to prop up a regime Washington doesn’t trust, for goals our president can’t define.

Tea Party Isn’t Mellowing GOP Militarism

Lindsay Graham isn’t alone when he imagines an emerging “isolationist wing” of the Republican Congress. Pundits have lately both lamented and celebrated the arrival of a Tea Party foreign policy, where deficit fears restrain military adventures and Pentagon spending.

I wish there were such a thing. My op-ed in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer shows that there isn’t.  I report there on research that I did (really research that intern Matt Fay did) on support among Republicans in the House and Senate for cutting defense spending and getting out of Afghanistan. I found little.

I also tested the idea that the Tea Party is restraining Republican militarism, by comparing the 101 freshmen that largely claim adherence to that movement to other Republican members. Freshmen are not more dovish than the rest, suggesting that the Tea Party reflects Republican politics more than it guides it. A post I put up yesterday on the National Interest’s Skeptics blog illustrates this point with charts.

As Tad DeHaven notes, Congressional Republicans, including leaders in both Houses, have increasingly said that they would support defense cuts as part of a deficit reduction package. But those taking that position remain a minority of their party–fifteen percent by a generous accounting, comprising roughly equal fractions of new and old members. And the cuts that the minority of Republican want are likely to be cosmetic, trimming fat and chasing efficiencies, not taming the beast by taking on less missions and cutting force structure. For these reasons, it’s not surprising that the symbolic spending cut resolution up for a House vote Tuesday exempts the nearly two-thirds of domestic spending labeled as “security,” as I discussed in another Skeptics post.

GOP support for indefinite war in Afghanistan is stronger. Only ten Congressional Republicans are obviously against that war, and not one is a Senator or a freshman. That last bit bears repeating: none of the 101 new Republican members of the House and Senate are clearly against the war in Afghanistan.

The difference between new and old Republicans on these issues is that the new members are less likely to have firm positions. They got elected largely without expressing coherent views on defense issues. Since then, many seem to be reading the tea-leaves and keeping quiet about those matters.  But they will soon be tied into positions as they justify votes. So the coming months are crucial in determining how a big chunk of Republicans vote for some time.

I am not optimistic that many will side with those of us that would like to vastly scale back our foreign policy. In the Skeptics post I explain why:

The GOP has been in the habit, probably since the 1970s, of out-hawking the Democrats and equating military aggressiveness with support for the military and American virtue. Whether that is winning political strategy I’m not sure (yes in 2004, no in 2008), but it is at least a powerful habit, reinforced by decades of neoconservative warbling, whose authors are now ensconced in the nation’s most prominent op-ed pages and think tanks.

Beyond that, military spending bestows its munificence in many districts, generating bipartisan support. But, on the left, the prospect of spending caps creates countervailing interests. Caps force defenders of other domestic spending to be dovish on defense. Health care’s cost competes with the Navy’s, especially under budget caps. That’s not as issue on the right.

The most important force keeping Republican fond of military adventure, however, is common to Democrats: international opportunity. We have expansive foreign policies because we can. Balancing is weak. The costs of adventurism are few and diffuse. For Europeans alive 100 years ago, foreign policy failures could bring conquest and mass death. Even successful wars would kill many sons and consume a considerable portion of societal wealth. For most Americans, especially since the draft ended, foreign policy disasters bring marginally higher tax rates. Ideologies justifying expansive policies—liberal internationalism on the left, neoconservatism on the right—grow popular because they justify the behavior this structure allows.

Doves say that the United States cannot afford its foreign policy. The problem is that it can, even when recessions make the load a bit harder to bear. Unsustainable things end. The United States can afford to do all sorts of foolish things.

Woodward, Resilience, and Virtues of Partisan Foreign Policy

On the National Interest’s Skeptics blog, I have a new post about my lack of outrage over the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book about Obama and Afghanistan.

Unlike John Bolton and Heritage, I don’t think that the President’s comment that we can withstand another terrorist attack like 9-11 is offensive. After all, we can, and saying so doesn’t mean you want to try it.

As I put it there:

What’s truly outrageous is the notion that the only valid response to terrorism is cowering fear at home and endless warfare abroad. Somehow, for much the right, crediting our enemies with the ability to wreck our society is required, and it is verboten to say that we are something other than a pathetic, brittle nation that cannot manage adversity.

I also fail to get upset about the President’s worry that expanding the war in Afghanistan would alienate his base. Politics not only doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; it shouldn’t. I’m not sure exactly when popular checks on the war-making power went out of style, but I think we could use more of that in Afghanistan, not less. If pandering to the base can get us out of there one of these years, pander away.

The solution to bad policies is better politics, not no politics, to paraphase.

*I also recommend Paul Pillar’s post on the same subject. He says that the real news here is the Pentagon’s refusal to offer the President a policy alternative between population centric counter-insurgency and exit.

Woodward’s Narrative

The New York Times reports that the book, Obama’s Wars, by longtime Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that is scheduled for publication next week, depicts an administration completely at odds over the war in Afghanistan.

According to Woodward, the president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this.” He implored his advisers at one meeting, “I want an exit strategy,” and he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

It’s unfortunate that the policy debate over Afghanistan will be further spun into a left-vs.-right issue. After all, there are growing, if nascent, signs that some on the political right have reservations about our continued military involvement in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), who earned an 80 percent favorable rating from the American Conservative Union, was a GOP co-sponsor to Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) resolution to force the removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. In March, Congressman John Duncan (R-Tenn.) came to the Cato Institute and explained why “there is nothing conservative about the war in Afghanistan.”

And as Cato founder Ed Crane wrote last year in the pages of the LA Times:

Republicans should take this opportunity to return to their traditional non-interventionist roots, and throw their neoconservative wing under the bus and forcefully oppose the war in Afghanistan. The Republicans have a chance at this moment to reclaim the mantle of the party of non-intervention — in your health care, in your wallet, in your lifestyle, and in the affairs of other nations.

I am not a conservative, and neither are many of my Cato colleagues. But these comments are intended to highlight that leaving Afghanistan is far beyond Left vs. Right. In fact, many conservatives used to deride nation-building as a utopian venture that had little to do with the nation’s real interests. In the case of Afghanistan, troops are being deployed to prop up a regime Washington doesn’t trust, for goals our president can’t define. There is a principled case to be made that a prolonged nation-building occupation is weakening our country militarily and economically. It’s a question of scarce resources and limiting the power of government. The immense price tag for war in Afghanistan can no longer be swept under the carpet or dismissed as an issue owned by peaceniks and pacifists, much less “the Democratic Party.”

Collateral Murder, Indeed

I finally found the time to go through the WikiLeaks’ Afghan War Diary entries containing accounts of my 2004 tour in Afghanistan (my third tour; appropriate bio and disclaimer can be found here).

I am underwhelmed. I am not sure what Julian Assange thought the release of these documents would tell people about the war in Afghanistan, beyond the fact that people are shooting at each other and that, generally speaking, war is Hell. If I identified the entries associated with my service in Afghanistan, you would read summaries of the firefights and rocket attacks that my unit faced, with metrics of rounds fired and received and associated casualties.

Parallel to Noah Schachtman’s excellent write-up contrasting his experiences while embedded with Marines in Helmand Province versus what WikiLeaks provides, you would have little visibility on the actual maneuver of troops, the relationship that they have with the populace, and the effectiveness of Afghan forces. Reading WikiLeaks alone would give you a picture of the Afghan War that falls short of what you can get from normal press outlets.

This skewed portrait of our policy comes at no small price. The identification of our intelligence contacts and sources is sure to put their lives in danger, as Steve Coll and (more importantly) Taliban spokesmen point out.

Unfortunately, Assange has taken Afghan War policy as an acceptable loss as well, no matter how you define it. Whether you support a COIN-centric approach, a reduced footprint in Afghanistan, a counterterrorism model, or even letting the CIA run the war, this is a disaster. This release of information is actually more damaging to downsizing strategies, since we will end up leaning on tribal alliances and intelligence assets more, not less.

Assange is facilitating the deaths of our intelligence contacts because he believes that the benefits outweigh the cost of their lives. That’s mighty rich, coming from a guy who labeled a 2007 case of mistaken identity in Iraq that resulted in the death of civilians as “collateral murder.” In that case, helicopter pilots misidentified a reporter’s zoom lens as the tail end of an RPG launcher, but armed men were in the reporters’ entourage that may have independently met the criteria for using force under the rules of engagement.

That’s (possibly) a mistake in the distinction of combatants, not an intentional approval of the loss of innocent life that is deemed acceptable in proportion to the direct military advantage anticipated. The latter is the definition of collateral damage, and Assange seems to have no problem with asserting his moral judgment in this realm.

Collateral murder, indeed.

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