Coming out of the just-concluded NATO Summit in Lisbon, it’s clear that the 2014 date for withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan is more aspirational than substantive, and that President Obama’s promised drawdown of troops in July 2011 will likely be more symbolic than a genuine shift in strategy. What is striking is that the decision to essentially stay the course in this failing war comes at a moment when a majority of Americans believe the war isn’t worth fighting.
The reason for this disconnect may be that Members of Congress say they’ve heard few concerns about the war from their constituents. Until Americans voice their opposition to the war with the same kind of intensity that they talk about jobs and the economy, Congress and the Administration have little political incentive to change direction.
"Another four years of war—at the current rate—we’re talking about 2400 more coalition and American soldiers dying, thousands more Afghans killed, and a price tag of about a half trillion dollars,” said Matthew Hoh, a former US Marine who resigned his Afghanistan post in protest last year and now serves as director of the Afghanistan Study Group. And the question remains—what does this sacrifice buy us? How does this benefit the US? How does it impact Al Qaeda? How does it help stabilize Pakistan? How is any of this worth it?"
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes now estimate the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will reach $4 to $6 trillion. There have been approximately 2,200 US and coalition casualties in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands of Afghan civilian deaths. The Christian Science Monitor reports that “softening” the 2011 and 2014 deadlines “could add at least $125 billion in war spending—not including long-term costs like debt servicing and health care for veterans."
One idea which might make the war resonate more with voters is to take responsibility for healthcare for veterans through a Veterans Trust Fund. Proposed by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, it would require Congress to appropriate funds upfront whenever they vote to go to war so that when soldiers are injured or wounded they are able to receive the care they need when they return home. Currently, that funding isn’t necessary when we send our troops off to war, so proper care is far from guaranteed.
Consider that last year there were more than 1,800 suicide attempts by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet the Veterans Administration is short more than 1,000 counselors, therapists and mental health specialists. Also, 565,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have filed disability claims for combat-related injuries. But the backlog for processing claims at the Veterans Administration now exceeds 500,000.
The importance of a Veterans Trust Fund—aside from taking care of those who risk their lives for this nation—is that it makes visible the too-often hidden costs of fighting these wars. The maimed and wounded soldiers serving in Afghanistan simply aren’t seen. And for all their bluster about supporting the troops and also tackling the deficit, the GOP is loathe to make the costs of war known or to walk the walk when it comes to providing for veterans.
In contrast to President Obama, President Bush refused to account for the cost of war in his budgets. And check out the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America 2010 Congressional Report Card. The list of those earning a “D” grade or below is like a who’s who in Republican leadership: John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Michele Bachmann, Pete Sessions, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Jon Kyl, Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, John Cornyn, Judd Gregg, Richard Lugar, John Thune, Lamar Alexander and the rumored next Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Jeff Miller. Note to the GOP: it takes more than a magnetic yellow ribbon and some faux patriotic rhetoric to truly support the troops.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for 23 percent of the combined budget deficits since 2003. The Republicans’ hypocrisy here is venal. If they were indeed serious about shrinking the deficit in a responsible way this war is one area where they would focus needed attention. Certainly those concerned with the budget and rebuilding our economy can agree that these resources could be put to better use at home.
And yet Win Without War National Director and former Congressman Tom Andrews writes of one Member of Congress who complained that the Veterans Trust Fund would drive the cost of war too high—as if hiding these costs somehow makes the war cheaper. In fact, illustrating the cost of war is necessary, and if it’s too high, then we shouldn’t send the troops—especially when the case for our national security interest is so tenuous, as it is in Afghanistan. As Major General John Batiste, who commanded forces in Iraq, testified in September: "Why are we discussing a Veterans’ Trust Fund nine years into these wars? We might very well have decided if we’d done the strategy right that the ends, ways and means are not in balance and therefore this was not a good idea. That, at the end of the day, is the bottom line."
But the fact is if Americans don’t begin to demand a change of course, then we probably won’t get one. The Generals (most notably, Petraeus) will continue to frame the debate—with little opposition and hundreds of Department of Defense and State Department war planners at their disposal—and declare that conditions on the ground will dictate when the troops come home.
The only way to challenge that is if the public and more Members speak out like those Congressmen who signed onto a bipartisan letter to President Obama last week in which they asked, "Is the war in Afghanistan and the price our nation is paying for this war truly in the national security interest of the United States?” The letter cites “suicide and post traumatic stress rates [which] continue to soar” and “an ability to care for the wounded that is severely over-burdened.” It characterizes the trillions of dollars spent as “unsustainable and unacceptable,” and “a significant drag on our economy, slowing our recovery.” The ten signatories call for “comprehensively review[ing] the costs and sustainability” of current US operations in Afghanistan, and for clearly defining “how and when US forces” will withdraw.
The alternative to speaking out is to resign ourselves to a tragic status quo.
“Is there acceptance among Americans that we are engaged in a generations-long conflict against a terrorist group that only has 1000 or 2000 followers around the world?” asks Hoh. “And that it requires us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, and have hundreds of thousands of Marines and soldiers deployed worldwide, in a perpetual war? It’s absolute madness, but I’m afraid people are buying into it and not challenging it."