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8 Years of War—And What Do We Get?

The skyrocketing costs and casualties of the war in Afghanistan should make us re-evaluate our national priorities and broaden our definition of security.

On October 7, 2001, as our nation launched a war with Afghanistan, could we have predicted that eight years later we would have spent $228 billion dollars on the war—with no end to either violence or spending in sight? If we had known, would we have given more thought to other, more productive ways of using our resources?

Afghanistan mortar

From left, U.S. Army Pfc. Jerry Cleveland and Spc. Brett Mitchell, both from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), fire a 120mm mortar during a combat operation in the Zabol province of Afghanistan Oct. 23, 2007

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Downen

Today, U.S. forces are profoundly engaged in Afghanistan, with as many as 60,000 additional troops being considered by the Obama administration. Casualties on all sides increase daily. So do costs.

The financial implications of the war are staggering. National Priorities Project (NPP), a nonprofit organization that analyzes the federal budget, estimates that, to date, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan have cost taxpayers $228 billion, including $60.2 billion in fiscal year 2009 alone. Monthly war costs in Afghanistan this year averaged $5 billion, up from $3.5 billion per month the previous year.

No matter how we slice the numbers, we must at least consider that each dollar spent to fight a war in Afghanistan is a dollar not available for some other endeavor. For example, I live in Massachusetts, where the taxpayers' share of the Afghanistan war as of September 30, 2009 was $6.4 billion. That same sum could have provided five and a half years of health care for the 352,000 people in the Commonwealth without health insurance. It could have sent 168,000 graduating Massachusetts seniors to four-year universities for free or constructed 22,000 affordable housing units.

Or, perhaps we might have chosen to tackle the Commonwealth's $5 billion deficit—with enough money remaining to generate more than 37,000 decent-paying mass transit jobs, replacing more than a third of the jobs lost statewide in the last year.

There is no time to waste. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is not alone in facing a growing budget deficit and devastating cuts to social programs. Governors across our nation report similar agonies, with 48 states cutting programs in the face of deficits next year. For his part, Patrick will preside over sharp reductions in subsidized health insurance for nearly 28,000 legal immigrants and cut programs in elder home care, Head Start, special education, and more.

If $228 billion over eight years for war in Afghanistan gives us reason for concern, our total military spending—$704 billion for fiscal year 2010—should make us want to send up an emergency flare.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee once called the federal budget a moral document—its spending priorities reflect our national values back to us. If we don’t like what we see in the mirror, it’s up to us to change it.

While U.S. cities and towns struggle with insufficient funding, the Department of Defense budget increases year after year. One side of the debate insists that our nation’s security demands steady increases in military spending. Another voice calls for a broadened definition of security, which encompasses health care, education, housing, job creation, renewable energy, and infrastructure.

But military spending continues to win the Washington budget debate. NPP found that in the last nine years, military expenditures rose at a significantly greater rate than increases in the overall budget (in other words, as the budgetary “pie” increased, the defense slice also got fatter). At the same time, federal grant programs to the states—like Head Start, Community Development and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program —did not keep pace with overall increases in the budget (the “grants to the states” slice of the pie got smaller and smaller).

Discretionary Spending

Proposed federal discretionary spending for fiscal year 2010. "Other" is composed of energy, agriculture, commerce and housing credit, community and regional development, general government allowances, and the administration of Social Security and Medicare.

Source: Security Spending Primer, National Priorities Project.

Next year, U.S. military spending will consume 55 percent of discretionary spending and approximately one-fifth of all government spending. The Department of Defense projects a 25 percent military spending increase in the next decade. It is the proverbial gorilla in President Obama's $3.4 trillion budget. If unchecked, it threatens to choke the long-term meaningful advances he proposes for health care, renewable energy, agriculture, and education.

This spring, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed unprecedented cuts to Pentagon spending, proclaiming that the "the spigot of defense spending after 9-11 is closing.” The first Cold War system to fall—with much ado—was the F-22 fighter jet. While this is commendable, Gates and the Obama administration must go further. Much further.

To date, the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars approved by Congress is $915 billion. President Obama's 2010 budget adds another $130 billion for war. We will hit the $1 trillion marker by March of next year, with no end in sight. Will that nine-year price tag startle Congress in the same way that $900 billion for a decade of health care has?

The gorilla cannot be ignored. Its sheer size demands that we re-examine and confront it. We must broaden our definition of national security so that it includes adequate funding for our communities and a willingness to reflect on the way our nation engages with the world.

Spending on military and war places a stress on our federal budget that we can ill afford during the current recession. People will continue to debate the efficacy of the war in Afghanistan in geopolitical terms. But it is ironic that in staying, we risk weakening the very institutions that provide us with real security. We won't be able to prevent crossing the chilling $1 trillion mark, but we can act now to invest in our security more wisely.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee once called the federal budget a moral document—its spending priorities reflect our national values back to us. If we don’t like what we see in the mirror, it’s up to us to change. All voices must be part of the national budget debate at such a critical—yet promising—time for our nation.


Jo Comerford

Jo Comerford wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a nonprofit national media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Jo is executive director of the National Priorities Project, whose mission is to analyze and clarify federal data so that people can understand and influence how their tax dollars are spent.

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