Deficit-cutting Panel Should Start with Wars
September 6, 2011
Joel Brinkley / San Francisco Chronicle
As the congressional debt-reduction "super committee" begins its work, it had best consider the trillions of dollars in war costs that Washington seems willing to acknowledge. For decades, estimates of war costs have intentionally iignored secondary expenses that result from combat, like veterans' health care. Now, a new academic study puts the wars' full price at about $4 trillion -- almost all of it deficit spending. That's nearly a third of the nation's $14 trillion debt.
SAN FRANCISCO (September 4, 2011) -- As the congressional debt-reduction "super committee" begins work this month, it had better take into account trillions of dollars in anticipated war costs that no one in Washington seems willing to acknowledge.
For decades now (and probably much longer), government estimates of war costs strove not to count numerous secondary expenses that result from combat, like veterans' health care - or the $20 billion wasted in Pakistan. Officials find the real numbers embarrassing. A recent Congressional Budget Office report, for example, placed the total costs of the Iraq and Afghan wars at $1.415 trillion, based solely on congressional appropriations specifically dedicated to those wars.
But a new academic study counts everything and puts the wars' full price at about $4 trillion -- almost all of it deficit spending. That's nearly 30 percent of the nation's $14 trillion debt. Even that, the study's authors say, doesn't include some costs that cannot be tallied, like those in the intelligence agencies' black budgets, or the hundreds of millions in impromptu "death gratuities" paid to families of Americans and some foreigners killed in war.
The more disturbing finding, however, is that in the coming years the wars threaten to cost the nation another $2 trillion -- in interest payments on war debt as well as continuing medical expenses for 150,000 wounded veterans.
As I said, no one in Washington is talking about that. Nobody wants to admit that these wars will end up costing $6 trillion or more - if all the troops were to come home right now. (That sum would pay the health care costs for every single American for more than two years -- or fund the federal government, in full, for more than a year and a half.)
Experts from more than a dozen universities and think tanks researched this new study, Costs of War Since 2001, under the auspices of the Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University. As the 10-year mark of the Afghan war approaches, the authors wrote, "It is appropriate" to "recall some of the costs we may have forgotten and to assess what has not been counted" along with consequent "opportunities lost, and possibilities foreclosed."
The congressional super committee is supposed to find $1.5 trillion in savings spread over the next 10 years. As they begin, they might want to consider that even if they reach their goal, almost-certain new war costs will more than offset the savings. And that's not the worst of it.
While outside experts tally the costs, something the government refuses to do, federal auditors are continuing to find that if you turn over any rock in Iraq or Afghanistan, you'll find tens of millions of dollars being wasted, stolen or otherwise misappropriated. In one new example, a Pentagon inspector general found that the Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan has allowed an insurance company to defraud it of $68.4 million.
In mid-August, a special U.S. military task force found that $360 million in reconstruction funds found its way into the hands of Taliban militants and other enemy forces. Unfortunately, all of that is simply business as usual for these two failed wars.
No matter what you might think about the justifications for starting the wars, it's hard to argue that they are succeeding. Right now, those two states the United States "saved" are two of the four most corrupt nations on earth, a corrosive problem that ripples down from presidential suites to the lowliest street sweeper.
Justifications for both wars shifted as circumstances changed. But in both cases the United States tried to install a democracy. Now, Freedom House classifies both countries as "not free," on a par with Iran.
In Afghanistan, a primary goal right now is to train the army and police so they can stand up to the Taliban once coalition forces leave. Well, that Congressional Budget Office study cited the same problems that have plagued this effort for years, including "shortages of trainers, problems with corruption, absenteeism, illiteracy and most recently" an auditor's report that said Defense Department trainers vastly overstate the Afghan soldiers' "operational capabilities."
Another federal auditor's report found that NATO trainers can't even come up with an accurate count of the Afghan police force, raising the likelihood that more than 10,000 of the people receiving salaries are "ghost police" - millions of dollars more flushed down the toilet.
The United States has little to gain from continuing either war. They are mile-deep money pits. If the super committee wants to find trillions of dollars in savings, it should look there first.
(c) 2011 Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2011 Hearst Communications Inc.
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