Burning borrowed money in America’s wars

By Bernd Debusmann
December 17, 2009

— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

The Pentagon has an evocative term for the level of spending on a war: burn rate. In Afghanistan, it has been running at around $5 million every hour for much of the year. The burn rate will begin going up next week when the first of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops arrive.

Once they are all in place, the burn rate is estimated to exceed $10 million an hour, or more than $8 billion a month. Much of that is literally burned — in the engines of American jeeps, trucks, tanks, aircraft and power generators. On average, each of the 183,000 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq requires 22 gallons of fuel a day, according to a study by the international accounting firm Deloitte.

Because of a difficult and dangerous supply line that runs more than 1,200 miles through Pakistan, fuel for the troops in Afghanistan is considerably more expensive than for those in Iraq: an average of $48 per gallon counting the cost of transport and protection. Flown by helicopter to positions on remote Afghan front lines, the cost can reach $400 per gallon.

Which helps explain why Afghanistan “is one of the most expensive, perhaps the most expensive, war in U.S. history on a per troop basis,” says Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. His estimate of the cost per year of a soldier deployed in Afghanistan this year matches the number used by the White House – around $1 million. (The Pentagon says is it is less.)

In comparison, a soldier in Iraq costs less than half. Again in comparison, an Afghan soldier costs $12,500 a year, a recent congressional hearing was told.

The staggering cost of the war highlights an aspect of asymmetric warfare which is worth noting: the insurgent has a huge advantage on the financial front. While a Marine Corps combat brigade, for example, burns up around 500,000 gallons of fuel a day (or $24 million, at an average of $48 per gallon), the marines’ insurgent enemies use a tiny fraction of that. They ride around in pickup trucks, or walk. They do not move in Humvees that average four miles per gallon.

The cost-benefit advantage the insurgents enjoy in combat occasionally features on jihadist websites. One video clip makes the point that an improvised explosives device that costs $30 to make can knock out a $3.2 million Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle.

Both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so far been financed with borrowed money that makes up part of the country’s deficit. The 2009 budget year, which ended in September, set an all-time high with $1.42 trillion. In 2010, it is expected to reach close to $1.5 trillion.


When President Barack Obama announced on December 1 that he would be sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, swelling the strength of the U.S. forces to more than 100,000, he said: “All told, by the time I took office the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq approached a trillion dollars. Going forward, I am committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly.”

His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said in mid-December that the cost of the Afghanistan escalation would be part of the administration’s regular budget request for 2011, a departure from the practice of the Bush administration to request emergency funds in “supplemental” bills.

One way or the other, it’s difficult to see how the administration could balance the books in the absence of a war tax – an idea pushed by several influential Democrats – or painful cuts elsewhere at a time of high unemployment (10 percent) and economic hardship for millions of Americans.

Does that mean the United States is drawing closer to a tipping point, a level of military overstretch and indebtedness that sapped empires in the past?

In an essay at the beginning of the year, a few days before Obama took office, the Harvard historian Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, commented that no country on earth had “anywhere like the staggering array of overseas military commitments and deployments” as the U.S.

That is more true today than it was at the beginning of the year. Along with more troops, there is more reason to wonder how right Kennedy was in saying in his essay that U.S. dependency on foreign investors resembled “more and more that state of international indebtedness we historians associate with the reigns of Philip II of Spain and Louis XIV of France…”

If Obama read that, he should have been worried. Under the reign of Philip II from 1556 to 1598, Spain reached the peak of its power, a global empire controlling territories from Europe and the Americas to Asia. It sank to second-rate status through a combination of factors that included wars and massive foreign debt. Louis XIV was involved in four big wars and on his death in 1715, left France deep in debt.


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Has it ever been considered that the US has been duped to over commit itself and eventually go bankrupt.

Posted by kedem | Report as abusive

Mr. Kennedy could have also mentioned the fact that the US is in the same situation Britain was in relation to her American colonies.

The “rebels’ knew their own terrain and didn’t have the massive costs the British had to field their troops.

The British would never have been able to win because anything they did could be worn down by recalcitrant colonists. And didn’t the British also tend to hold cities and towns in a country where most of the population was living on more or less self sufficient farms and plantations. That is just like Afghanistan where most of the population is not urban and is barely living in the 20th century let alone the 21st.

BTW the last administration hated what they called historical anecdotes. That was unfortunate.

But Afghanistan is still a matter of attempting to apprehend a self publicized, self admitted, mass murderer and the American colonists were not living under the domination of religious madmen. It is also the only war of the two now being fought, that received the almost universal approval of the UN. The Iraq invasion destroyed that near unanimity.

History may repeat itself, but it does so as an anagram.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

We have to return to the permanent war economy because the post-Soviet era Ponzi-scheme economy doesn’t have legs.

Posted by JimInNevada | Report as abusive

It’s all money down the drain. Once we leave, they’ll return to life as it was before we got there. Before the Russians got there,…….before any number of invaders got there. No one has ever prevailed there.
Any regime that we set up there will fail almost immediately and it’s leaders will be executed by the Taliban post haste. Karzai’s government is totally corrupt and the people cleave to the Taliban because of it.
Being there is a fool’s errand and our money and resources are just being wasted horribly.

Posted by RealNeil | Report as abusive

Well said RealNeil……and the sad part is that,the Allies are following and swallowing every thing America says hook,line and sinker……….
I thought Obama was smarter than Bush…lets all wait till……………………..

Posted by RobertTetteh | Report as abusive

We have exported our civilian economic engines of support.
Our factories! Our people have no jobs, we lie to ourselves, borrow money, and our people have no jobs. Only a matter of time. We WILL be bankrupt, without massive changes in how we conduct ourselves.

Posted by Pilot | Report as abusive

It is desperately sad to see America’s leadership still struggling to cope with the legacy of Vietnam. The spectre of an implied military defeat by withdrawing dictates that the only move possible is forward, despite the clear lack of military objectives. Afgahnistan is a theatre for intelligence gathering and surgical strikes by special forces, nothing more. The real problem is the serious risk America’s presence in Afgahnistan creates to a destabilsation of Pakistan.

The Taliban are no more of a threat to America than any right wing christian group in Texas are to Afgahnistan. Al Queda are a different matter, but by confusing the two groups, all perspective has been lost.

Posted by tomjeff | Report as abusive

It is refreshing to read some common sense truth in the media. Sometimes, I really think that either I am crazy, or everyone else is. When I start thinking that I’m crazy, I slack off on stockpiling the end-of-the-world cellar. Thanks to Mr. Debusmann, Gander Mountain will probably make some money this weekend.

Posted by russdward357 | Report as abusive

does anyone yet regret not voting for Ron Paul?

Posted by johngarnache | Report as abusive

Bring the troops home from everywhere, Iraq, Korea, Afghan, Germany, Africa, Poland, Japan, Kuwait, Saudi, Qatar, Britain….

Ron Paul in 2012!

Posted by USSoldier | Report as abusive

A local pole here in Wisconsin 86 percent disagree with the presidents decision to send more troops to Afgahnistan I wonder is anyone listening to what we the taxpayer are saying or does big business dictate what is to be.This should not be the case we have no “right” to tell others how they should live our government is mistaken in believing we are rightous in or endevors we should mind our own business and no troops should of died in this this is a travistey bring the troops home enough of this hero crap this is wrong and this surge is not going to make it better.

Posted by donnellmike24 | Report as abusive

did it ever occur to anyone that the fight is taliban vs. taliban?

the american right-wing christain gun tot’n abortion dr. hunt’n and kill’n is our taliban! and yes, they know their terrain (just look at how long that prolife killer who shot the abortionist in n.y. was able to hold out in the mts. in n.c. against the fbi, army rangers, etc.) and no matter what you do (short of killing everybody) they just keep coming back (and crazier–e.g., sarah pallin–each time)!

look out, ron paul is still right-wing, no matter how reasonable he sounds!! (just look how different obama is from what he said during his campaign.)

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

The only winners in war are those who make money from making war.

And they don’t care how much debt the public has to assume to pay for their horrid wares. They don’t really care whether wars are won or lost: of course, better for them is if wars are lost because winning would mean the end of the Big Sugar train. They care even less whether their stuff works at all, or who gets hurt by it, as long as lots of their overpriced gadgetry gets wasted in order that more can be ordered up.

The only war worth fighting is the war against war profiteers.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Maybe US is banking on the fact that it is too large to fail. I wonder which country will perform the “bail out” for US?

Posted by scheng1 | Report as abusive

Karzai’s government may be corrupt but that doesn’t say the Taliban aren’t.

An Afghan can apparently argue with the Karzai government and live. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Taliban(s). And the Taliban, like the Myanmar Generals, are big into the opium trade.

The Taliban seem to believe they have sole ownership of “God” and they will kill a disbeliever (or even a sloppy believer) for infractions of their interpretation of his book of spiritual etiquette. If a movie like “The Kite Flier” is accurate, they can also be very venally corrupt as well. They do not seem to be people who accept other people having minds of their own. Seminarian’s with guns.
Not an heartwarming prospect, is it?

What if that becomes a very popular attribute in other religions besides Islam? There are some extreme Christian Fundamentalist sects who could easily emulate them. The Settlers on the West bank give themselves the same dispensation to kill for their interpretation of “God’s greater plan” too.

I think we could say we are caught between Iraq and a hard place. As an aging baby boomer, I’m glad I’m on my way out and probably won’t live to see the final, if any, ever, resolution to this impossible conflict. It makes the cold war look comfortable and nearly sane by comparison. And it was, usually, for almost all the parties involved.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive