The Cost of Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy
Opinion — After several weeks of speculation on what path the Trump administration would take regarding America’s long war in Afghanistan with everything from withdrawal to a radical proposal to privatize the conflict being on the table. President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy proved to be the most conventional: a surge in the number of troops in the country that was backed by the national security establishment. Despite resistance from elements of Trump's base, Trump ultimately followed the advice of his national security team to escalate the troop presence. The question remains regarding how much a renewed effort in Afghanistan will cost.
First, let’s take a look at how much the war in Afghanistan already has cost. Since its beginning, according to one estimate, the war in Afghanistan has cost $841 billion. This is, however, on the low end of estimates. Taking into account a wider range of spending, the war in Afghanistan has cost nearly $2 trillion. Even this higher estimate does not cover all of the costs of the conflict. For instance, interest on the money borrowed to pay for the war could easily add up to trillions of dollars and these estimates do not include service members' salaries. Overall, the war in Afghanistan has proven to be extremely expensive up until this point and these costs would not be reduced by Trump’s new strategy.
Indeed, the 4,000 troop increase would certainly increase costs. While the troop increase is relatively modest, likely due to the desire to increase the role of allies in the conflict rather than rely on US forces, the cost would still add up. In fact, based on the track record of predicting the costs of Middle Eastern conflicts, the overall fiscal cost of a troop increase likely cannot be accurately calculated. Now, one could argue that these costs are still worth it in order to defeat the Taliban. However, ultimately, wiping out the Taliban is very unlikely to be accomplished. Certainly, defeating the Taliban would take an increase of far more troops. It is unlikely that Trump, who in part owed his victory to voters in regions with high military casualties who likely were weary of overseas conflict and whose initial instincts were to favor a withdrawal from the country, would sign-off on a drastically higher increase in troops.
Overall, Trump’s Afghanistan strategy would increase fiscal costs and fail to actually achieve his goals, even taking to account the possibility of tapping into the country's mineral wealth, A renewed intervention in Afghanistan would continue to increase the costs of the war in both money and American lives. While the privatization option was plenty unsavory on its face, it at least would have been cheaper. It is likely that it would have saved the US $40 billion annually, which is an improvement over this plan. However, a better option would be to acknowledge the reality that “winning” in Afghanistan is an unlikely proposition and withdraw. Doing so would better enable the United States to focus on bigger issues like dealing with the nuclear threats posed by North Korea and finally defeating ISIS. If we continue to remain in this 17-year conflict, it will simply continue to drain our treasury and cost soldiers their lives, weakening our ability to handle much more significant threats.
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