The Cost of War That a Superpower Will Bear

America’s fiscal problems are far greater than anything a military cutback can solve.

Can America afford to continue its war effort in Afghanistan? Except for a handful of liberal and libertarian lawmakers, there are few in Congress who have dared raise the possibility of shrinking America’s military presence overseas. The war, however, is increasingly unpopular. An immediate withdrawal could save the federal government several hundreds of billions in spending over the next three years.

With a projected $1.6 trillion shortfall this year and no compromise agreement on long-term deficit reduction yet reached between the two major parties, the need for fiscal restraint is certainly there. But is the Afghan war really a huge burden on the American taxpayer?

The United States are on track to spend $113 billion on military operations in Afghanistan this fiscal year which is some $50 billion less than last year’s interest payments on the national debt but a near 50 percent increase compared to 2009. Including nonmilitary projects, like reconstruction efforts and diplomacy, the country has spent nearly $460 billion in Afghanistan since the invasion of 2001. Next fiscal year, the Pentagon will probably request $107 billion to fund the war.

According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, more than half of Americans believe that the war has not been worth fighting. 73 percent of respondents said that the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from the country this summer. President Barack Obama has announced that soldiers will start coming home later this year before a final withdrawal in 2014.

The Washington Post reports that many of the president’s civilian advisors believe the price is too high. The recent killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden has only sharpened their doubts about the need for a broad national building mission in Afghanistan compared to far less expensive counterterrorism efforts, such as bombing insurgent targets with unmanned drone aircraft in Pakistan.

Justifying the huge expense of the war, defense secretary Robert Gates urged skeptics to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure? We’ve invested a huge amount of money here,” he told ABC News earlier this month, and many hundreds of American lives were lost. “Congress is almost always impatient,” Gates admitted but he cautioned legislators against short-term thinking. An Afghanistan without a foreign troop presence could once again succumb to religious fanaticism and export terrorism as it did before 2001.

Gates has worked to rein in American defense spending, identifying more than $400 billion in possible cuts over the next decade, but warned against “steep and unwise reductions in defense” even if economic times are tough. Although the military’s budget has increased exponentially since September 11, 2001, from $291 to almost $700 billion, the War on Terror alone has not caused the spike.

If operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were to come to an end, total defense outlays would be reduced by roughly one fifth. The Pentagon would still be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on pay and benefits and housing for personnel as well as operations, maintenance and procurement though.

One of the main drivers of the department’s ballooning budget projections are mounting health-care costs. The military spent $19 billion on health care for servicemen and veterans in 2001. That is up to more than $52 billion for fiscal year 2012.

Gates has proposed “modest increases” to the fees that soldiers and their families pay into their health-care plans to offset the rising costs. He told the Senate earlier this year that the current arrangement, “one in which fees have not increased for fifteen years, is simply unsustainable.” If it remains unchanged, “the Defense Department risks the fate of other corporate and government bureaucracies that were ultimately crippled by personnel costs — in particular, their retiree benefit packages.”

Pensions, indeed, are a huge financial burden on the country. Social Security and Medicare, which finances health care for retirees, cost more than $1.1 trillion last year. Their costs are projected to skyrocket in years to come. Medicare, if left unchanged, could run out of money by 2024. It is this imminent entitlement crisis and the growing national debt associated with it that should concern lawmakers. Admiral Michael Mullen, the senior American military officer, even identified the nation’s mounting debt burden as its single greatest national security threat.

Isolationism is not the answer to America’s fiscal problems. Without a military, the government would still be spending $1 trillion more than it takes in in revenue. Simply abandoning Afghanistan, as Secretary Gates pointed out, would be foolish if not dangerous — and a terrible investment decision.