Can We Afford the Afghan War?

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Supporters of the war in Afghanistan have long contended that the mission to stabilize the violent and destitute nation, curb international terrorism, and prevent the collapse of neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan was too important to worry about cost. But, increasingly, some pundits worry that the war's price tag may be spiraling out of control. Their concerns come amid attacks on the expense of health care reform legislation. If health care is subject to such stringent concerns about cost, should Afghanistan be as well? How do you put a price tag on global humanitarian disaster?

  • Democratic Lawmakers Object Three high-ranking House Democrats have proposed legislation to impose a surtax to pay for the war. In a joint statement, legislators lamented that cost is a factor in discussing health care but not in discussing the Afghan war. Rep. John Murtha, who backs the bill, conceded that it is unlikely to pass but is meant to send a political message and to get people talking about the dollar costs of war.
  • Better Spent Elsewhere The Atlantic's Derek Thompson asks in the Daily Beast, "Why can't a debate about war also be a debate about money?" Thompson points out that the suggested 40,000 troop scale-up could cost $40 billion. "Put military strategy on ice for a minute, and think about that number. That $40 billion could be about half the average yearly cost of health care reform over the next decade. It's the equivalent of our total education department budget for 2010. An additional $40 billion would double our Homeland Security budget. Comparing the fight against terrorism to textbooks and electronic records might seem impolitic. But spending is scarce. It's also zero-sum."
  • Letting Military Set Tone Matthew Yglesias laments "the limits of conducting this kind of debate more-or-less entirely within the four walls of the military. After all, why wouldn't the special ops guys want to see as much resources as possible put into Afghanistan? At the end of the day to get a real debate going about the wisdom of going big you need someone in the room who represents a competing claim on the resources at hand," he writes. "If the meeting also includes someone who needs to worry about the budget deficit, or about health care, or about child nutrition, or preventing bridges from collapsing then maybe this doesn't look like such a great deal."
  • Cost of Failure? The potential price tag of departing Afghanistan is almost never discussed. It's not exactly politic, after all, to ask how much it would cost in dollars to recover from another terrorist attack. But no less than then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did exactly that when evaluating the price tag of the Iraq war in 2003. "I think the way to put it into perspective is that the estimates as to what September 11th cost the United States of America ranges high up into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Now, another event in the United States that was like September 11th, and which cost thousands of lives, but one that involved a -- for example, a biological weapon, would be -- have a cost in human life, as well as in billions, hundreds of billions of dollars, that would be vastly greater."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.