How to finance the war in Afghanistan?

November 20, 2009


global_post_logo— This opinion piece was written by C.M. Sennot for GlobalPost. The views expressed are his own. It was originally published here on GlobalPost. —

The last time America had to borrow money to finance a war was during the Revolution and a cash-strapped Continental Congress took loans from France to fund a surge against the British.

That worked out pretty well.

But it’s hard to feel the spirit of 1776 in President Obama’s journey to China. He went as a representative of a borrowing nation to its primary lender amid a call for yet another costly military surge in the Long War that is escalating in Afghanistan even if it is hopefully winding down in Iraq.

As the president completes his journey to Asia, he returns to Washington to face what is the most consequential foreign policy decision of his presidency, a decision that this administration has not yet fully thought through.

That is whether to heed the counsel of his top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and call for a surge of 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan.

Obama is said to also be pondering a middle ground of calling up somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 more troops.

Or, and this is shaping up as a long shot, he and his team of rivals in the Pentagon and the State Department could decide to rebuff McChrystal. In this scenario, Obama would refocus the mission but still hold to the general counterinsurgency plan that he originally spelled out in March and which increased U.S. troops by 21,000 to a total U.S. presence of 68,000 troops. That surge was just completed this fall.

From my experience talking with counterinsurgency experts and meeting with U.S. and coalition counterinsurgency leaders and trainers in Afghanistan over the summer, I am hoping Obama chooses to hold to the existing troops level. I am hoping he does that while refocusing his original plan to be more targeted on counterterrorism than the wider goal of classic counterinsurgency against the Taliban. He should stick to his guns and hold at the troop levels he has and make the troops who are there better and more effective and provided with better equipment and intelligence assets to get the job done. As I said in an earlier column, less is more right now in Afghanistan.

Every empire in history has regretted an escalation in Afghanistan and it is hard to see how America would be any different.

I do not envy the president and his team in making a very difficult and costly decision at a very hard time economically in America. Few presidents in history have had to face so many fateful decisions in their first year in the White House.

But despite all the pondering the president has given to whether to increase troops, it seems he has given far too little consideration to the overall cost of escalating the war and how it will undercut his ability to fund the ambitious domestic policy agenda he has set out from bank bailouts to health care reform.

With all the debt piling up, it seems to me there is a clear connection between his trip to China and these war costs in Afghanistan.

If you think about it, the hundreds of billions we borrow from China every year will go at least in part to fund the enormous cost of an escalation of troops in Afghanistan, a cost — in terms of lives and treasure.

The war in Iraq will end up costing this country more than 2 trillion dollars, according to the conservative projections of Linda Bilmes, an economist at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The cost is higher still if you include interest on the debt, interest which will in a large measure be paid to China.

Bilmes has worked closely with the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to do the long math on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to factor in not just the military budget and the interest on the debt but also the extraordinary high cost on every level of soldiers who are wounded physically and mentally by war.

Bilmes is credited with highlighting the failure of the administration of President George W. Bush to give an accurate cost assessment of a war that escalated several hundred times beyond the original projection of just $50 billion to $60 billion made by the Pentagon at the start of the war in 2003. She’s been proven right and she’s worried that the Obama administration may be fatefully making another miscalculation on the cost of war in Afghanistan.

And we’ve hit a profound turning point in Afghanistan. In this new budget year, which started Oct. 1, for the first time, the war in Afghanistan will cost Americans more than the war in Iraq.

And, as Bilmes points out, fighting in Afghanistan is more costly than it is in Iraq because of the terrain and the difficulty in supplying troops and evacuating the wounded. She estimates that Afghanistan is as much as 1.6 times more expensive per soldier than Iraq.

“While this administration has brought great military expertise to thinking this through, there needs to be a greater focus on the cost. How are we going to pay for this? People are still not looking at the long term costs,” said Bilmes.

And so as the president stares out the window of Air Force One pondering the dark skies in the long journey back to Washington, one can only hope that he has thought through the extraordinary cost — on every level — of calling for an escalation of troops in Afghanistan.

More on Afghanistan from GlobalPost:

America’s farmer-soldiers in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s only pig quarantined? Must be bad

Afghanistan: Waiting for the dust to settle

Troops’ deaths shatter trust in Helmand

Pictured above: U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Great Wall of China at Badaling, November 18, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Look this is the Pentagon’s war. Let them finance it from its existing budget. The brass had a mighty good free ride in Iraq thanks to China borrowing. They had their fun but did they pay back Iraq cost, less make money out of it? And don’t give me that Saddam and WMS BS – Pentagon went in to make a buck from the oil and plunder Iraqi assets. Well, where’s the meat?

Posted by The Real Deal | Report as abusive

Lets get back to Conflict 101 and the basics. Every army needs money to fight a war. So do the bad guys in Afghanistan. If we spent 10% of the effort choking off their funding as we do fighting them, this war would have been over long ago.

Posted by Albright | Report as abusive

Great article, succinct and accurate. I have been very impressed with the depth of reporting coming from GlobalPost.I agree that we need to totally re-evaluate our commitment in Afghanistan. Considering that the most recent troop surge just finished, it should be given time to make an impact. Any additional troops at this stage is pointless unless there is a major overhaul of the current strategy. I trust in Pres. Obama’s judgment, and I think he will make the correct decision.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

Lol, finance the war, well of course as was said we can rely on our dear friends and #1 allies (i mean that seriously) the Chinese. My guess is most of it will be financed by houdini-like credit creation and the printing press. Good way to finance wars, good way to destroy the dollar and the middle/lower class standard of living.I think we should let Halliburton pay for it, after all those no-bid contracts they’ve got to have plenty left over.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

“And we’ve hit a profound turning point in Afghanistan. In this new budget year, which started Oct. 1, for the first time, the war in Afghanistan will cost Americans more than the war in Iraq.”Well i honestly think that we are gonna be in the Middle east for a very long time. From the looks of it we are going to have to deal with terrorism spreading and evolving over their. Remember these propaganda tactics will always be pointing the finger on America. The middle eastern peoples hatred towards us will always exist. And unfortunately, look at our home grown terrorism…we cannot afford sending our lower and middle class to good public school. But we danm shore can send them off to the middle east to fight and educate themselves on weapons and war fighting tactics???.Im not trying to be negative but its just the reality of it…i at one point was ready to join the United States Marine Corp. To this day i still do… But im smarter than that. Im not gonna go strap up and fight a sophisticated enemy with unlimited funding from terrorist network’s. Give me something to really fight for! Give me a clear goal an objective! Dont let me wonder around “patroling” the streets and villages! Thats like asking for these danm fools to “hey im here shoot me”, “Ambush Me”.Question is how can we win?, how can we win in a battle zone that’s one unpredictable. Two the enemy is nearly undetectable!…im outraged to know that our warfighters, are 18,19,20,etc year old and have to give up their all and then come back home to get hit with criticism,PSTD, and NO JOBS!Please on my behalf their needs to be another way to defeat the enemy…We should not be failing our family and kids and increasing tuition for our generation and the next.Im 21, i cannot stand here and stay shut, i will not and i vow to DO something. Join me, lets look pass our ignorancy, our selfishness…Stop taking things for granted open doors for those less fortunate.. Thank you.Junior Alejandro Herrera

Posted by junior | Report as abusive

Let those people who vote in the polls for the war raise their taxes to pay for it. Watch how quick their support changes.

Posted by Roy Raymer | Report as abusive

The key is to be sneaky.Pick one day randomly during the next month. Keep that day completely secret from the enemy. Then on that day, every member of the US military gets a unpaid day off. Saving the US government millions of dollars.That day of saved money can then be used to build another drone wing to use in Afganistan. Rince and repeat.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

How ridiculous is it that the government is grinding its teeth over how to finance the killing of others, and yet they don’t believe it’s worth it to finance health care coverage for every American citizen?Surely I can’t be the only one to see how retarded this argument is. These must be the times that the old sages spoke of. The time when we call evil good, and good evil.Killing people across the world is worth financing. But providing free universal health care and education is apparently morally wrong. Darkness rules the mind of man.

Posted by Benny Acosta | Report as abusive

Man oh man..that is a hard question, with so may problems here at home, to add this was on top is seeming like just one toow many burdens to carry. My thought is this, what about asking the Arab countries who have the most to lose to help with financing a possible victory that would keep their own countries safe!!

Posted by lorrie | Report as abusive

I like Mr. Raymer’s idea.As a matter of fact let’s use that for everything, if you want a chunk of your income taxes to go towards warmongering, or paying for welfare, or the dept of education, or pork barrel spending, or the drug war, or the dept of homeland security, you should just put a check next to the box on your W-2.A la carte taxation, thanks for the idea Roy. Then we’ll get to see people’s true convictions.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

You pay for the war the same way you pay down the national debt: auction off U.S. states to the highest bidder.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

Uh, has anyone considered declaring the Middle East unable to be “won” and placed under American hegemony?The problem is that America has become addicted to “winning” and exerting its will anywhere in the world, over anyone it pleases.We have never bothered to consider acting as a peer among other nations or to anticipate the cold reality that we might encounter any enemy that we could not conquer and subjugate.The result is that we, as obsessive/compulsive rulers must perseverate until we are exhausted and collapse.Such is the life-cycle of empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Alexander of Macedon, Seleucids, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, you name ’em — It’s a tragedy that the U.S. has waltzed blithely and arrogantly into such an obvious and historically demonstrable blunder and lived-out a classic pattern of expansionist decline.

Posted by adam | Report as abusive

People far less disinclined than I to accept the very concept of a “just” war are likely to find any and all comparison of historic self-defense actions taken by the Continental Congress to the sordid profit motive behind America’s ongoing Iraq and Afghan debacles nothing short of absolute sacrilege.While the former example seems like a case of legitimate insurgency in the name of sheer survival, America’s recent aggressive forays into the Middle East have been patently unnecessary from the get-go and surely never intended to be “won”.The longer they last, the more money is made by those who furnish Empire with the defective weaponry deployed in laying waste to people and their cultures, not only those invaded but on either or any side of frivolously souped-up and concocted conflict scenarios. The same people starting them have absolutely no interest in these wars ever coming to an end.One turning point at issue now is that fewer Americans are prepared to further endorse the Pentagon’s shenanigans in pursuit of illicit profit in the Middle East and elsewhere than are opposed to them. This is history in the making.For war criminals and anyone (Obama, take note) who has dallied in their prosecution this means: Big Trouble, Soon Come.In other words, Americans really aren’t such bad people after all. When the rest of the world realizes this, not to mention the United States of America itself, global peace may yet reign.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

The short answer is ‘you.’ You are going to pay for this war. You are not going to have to fight in it and that is one reason you should be glad to pay for it. The only thing you as a taxpayer should have to pay for is defense so others make it their business to defend you. This allows you to go about your business without fear of harm or subjugation. The defense budget is 1/4 where does the other 3/4 go? Are you getting your money worth for that 1/4? Are you getting your money worth for the other 3/4? These are the questions you should be asking yourself.

Posted by buddy | Report as abusive

We are not defending ourselves in this so called war. We are exploiting the people of the middle east so that we don’t have to pay so much at the pump.I will not give my children up to the meat grinder just cause gas is expensive. We have the talent and the know how to fix our own problems. But profiteers want to keep the bloated carcasses of their failed enterprises alive. And war is an excellent economic stimulator as long as it’s not fought on our soil.Our leaders treat our children like fodder for the cannons in the battle for profit and exploitation. Sacrilege indeed. After this fiasco is done there will likely be another war to take its place. And once again our leaders will wave the flag and call for defending freedom. Don’t be surprised if we engage China next.

Posted by Benny Acosta | Report as abusive

First and foremost, we need to separate the war and the nation building in Afghan.Can’t we make the Afghans to embrace the Western values and build a democratic society? No more than the Soviets could make them embrace Communism in 1980s. And no more than the Brits could put them under Queen Victoria’s scepter in XIX Century. So forget nation building.The most costly part if Afghan war is the personnel and provision of its safety, food, fuel, comfort, etc. So we should less rely on boots on the ground, and more on technology and firepower.Now, a lot of ordnance, including long range missiles and nukes, is getting decommissioned each year. Why don’t we send (launch into, drop on, shoot at) Afghanistan all of these as the means of decommission? Will be not as precise as soldiers on the ground actually distinguishing between the targets, but the cost savings, as well as higher security for the soldiers who wouldn’t have to get into line of fire, may be well worth the extra collateral damage this would inevitably result in.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Benny Acosta – in reference to your statement: “Our leaders treat our children like fodder for the cannons in the battle for profit and exploitation”Your children do not have to fight this war. There is no draft. That is what you are paying for. As to your reference to cheap gas, well, while you are being defended use your spare time to come up with a solution. Become part of the solution, not just another whiner. You can do things to reduce the amount of oil you use.

Posted by buddy | Report as abusive

Anonymous – please read GEN McChrystal’s report to the President. It is widely available on the internet. It answers your questions.

Posted by buddy | Report as abusive

Benny Acosta – what do you mean “our leaders treat our children like fodder for the cannons?” There is no draft, it is an all volunteer military. Your children don’t “have” to join nor will they be “forced” to join. Other people will do so and that is what you are getting for your money, the opportunity not to have to offer your children up unless they choose to do so by their own free will.

Posted by buddy | Report as abusive

How are we going to “win” in Afghanistan? When US troops respond to attacks, who are they fighting? Where are the attackers from, and who funds them? If we[the US]had focused on announcing our intention to find and destroy these havens, instead of bogging down and bankrupting ourselves, we might still have some of the clout we claim to have. Hey, “Buddy” am I more “free” since we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Put another way, has our financial enslavement, the enrichment of corrupt politicians and warlords, and the deaths of even one soldier benefitted us in any way? And, are we any closer to defeating the people who attacked us on 9/11? I would argue “no” in spades!!!

Posted by Tom | Report as abusive

Buddy,Our military people are our protectors. It is supposed to be a position of honor. Our government uses them like mafia hired muscle. None of the conflicts we’ve been involved in, in recent history have been about protecting us. Our wars have been about securing profit and influence.That’s what I mean. These honorable people are not criminals and should not be used as such.

Posted by Benny Acosta | Report as abusive

2017: Thanks America for once again deciding on behalf of the whole world. Was the UN Security Council consulted ? The funny thing is, the US knows very little about the rest of the world, while the whole world knows everything about the US. I am not sure what to think, is there an agenda to please non-democrats or is it really about oil ? If it is about regional influence, there is already dissent amongst neighbors. No wonder the Muslim nations are flirting around in South America and Africa. The US needs a National Party so that more flags can be planted along the coastlines. If something goes wrong here, the world will never forgive the US (again). To talk about financing the incursion is treachery in itself. I am not even bothering watching the primetime BS on December 1st 2009 if 2017 is true.

Posted by ANON | Report as abusive

…sorry about that, it is just so frustrating coming from a similar history and age of nation than America to see such a versatile, advanced and intelligent society so deeply divided in itself. For whatever historical reason, I think that more than 50% of other nations look up at the US and in a weird way admires it. This incursion and war thing has just been going on too long though. It is psychologically paralyzing. Please restore our hope in a fair, just and tolerant world, we really need it ! As an example, please form superpower joint ventures in places like Africa, rather than subjecting the people to an insane and spirit breaking tug-of-war. One day, when I sit and chat with my friends at our retirement communal farm, I don’t want to remember the US for its infighting, flag, utility vehicles and ascending mushroomed fireballs from bombs. It is all getting too much and people and nations are beginning to conjure conspiracies and switch allegiances.

Posted by ANON | Report as abusive

Fly by wire, war by phone, I am out.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

[…] operations topped 3 trillion dollars by some estimates.  This is invisible debt, because the Chinese have been picking up the tab and it didn’t raise taxes, but it’s there and it’s […]

Posted by THE HILLBILLY PROGRESSIVE » Blog Archive » A NEW SURGE | Report as abusive