The Cost of Victory in Afghanistan

Commenting on my post about the projected end state size of the Afghan security forces (I had taken the figure to be for the Afghan army alone), Joshua Foust has this to say over at Registan:

I think, despite his deep skepticism, he might be underselling the problems even here . . .

The State Department wants about 162,000 ANSF—Afghan NationalSecurity Forces, or all the troops and police combined. In 2010, thatwill cost more than Afghanistan’s total GDP. Literally, the U.S.government’s big plan is to build an Afghan security force whose costexceeds the total economic output of the country, and their plan is tosell that as a sustainable and responsible solution to the insurgency.

You could rephrase that plan another way, which has become depressingly familiar of late: assume infinite resources.

[Question: Does that GDP figure include poppy production?]

Foust is spot on, and while it’s obvious what’s lacking in Afghanistan (as he puts it in this post, “[S]ecurity, and the people to enforce it”), what’s not at all clear is whether we’ve got adequate resources, let alone infinite resources, to address the problems, because we’ve now got a financial axis to consider with regard to foreign policy. (In fact, Afghanistan might be the perfect storm combining all five of the foreign policy axes I outlined last week.)

I’ve had this recurring thought over the past few weeks that it would be entirely consistent with his campaign’s theme of individual responsibility for President-elect Obama to mobilize America on the kind of wartime footing that President Bush categorically rejected in favor of life (i.e., consumption) going on as usual. Unlike FDR, who had essentially two terms of dealing with the Great Depression before entering WWII, Obama inherits the Big Lebowski all at the same time. Given his stated goals of reupping in Afghanistan and the emerging consensus (via the Lowy Interpreter) that a 40,000-troop surge (five combat brigades, yes, but logistical support will eventually be tacked on the back end) is what’s needed, I would not be surprised to see financial stimulus and a truly national war effort increasingly used in the same addresses.

There are two problems with this. The first has to do with the fundamental differences in terms of economic impact between WWII (which is now wryly referred to as a “great public works program”) and a counterinsurgency like the Afghanistan War, which is essentially a drain on productive resources and an outflow of wealth, as I noted previously.

The second, though, is in the broad strategic justification for such a mobilization. If you compare the threats America faced on Dec. 6, 1941, and Sept. 10, 2001, with all the understanding we have in hindsight, it’s pretty unfathomable that we were not on a wartime footing in the former case, whereas in the latter, most of the failings have been identified as intelligence and law enforcement lapses. The task that faced America on Dec. 8, 1941, was also of a different order than that faced on Sept. 12, 2001: two conventional militaries with industrial bases in the former case, and a number of well-financed, hardcore training camps protected by hard to reach locations in a technologically backwards country in the latter.

Seven years and a misguided redirection of resources to Iraq later, we essentially face the same strategic situation in Afghanistan that we did on Sept. 12, 2001, with the major difference being that the hard to reach locations have been shifted eastward into Pakistan. The question isn’t whether the goal of a stable, less oppressive Afghanistan is a noble one, but whether it is an essential one, and if so, whether it is achievable with the resources we (and our NATO and Afghan allies) are able and willing to commit. I’d argue that the answer is no, no (no and no), and no. In that order.