President Obama’s decision to halt the long-planned drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan could have a serious impact on the already strained federal budget.
“While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures,” Obama said in remarks from the White House. “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”
His original plan, unveiled in early 2014, called for shrinking the existing U.S. footprint of 9,800 troops to an embassy-like security force of around 1,000 in Kabul after 2016. Under the president’s new scheme, troop levels will freeze where they are for much of 2016, with a reduction to 5,500 soldiers at some point after that.
Obama, who campaigned on a vow to end America’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he reworked his plan in light of recent events on the ground, including the emergence of ISIS in the country and the Taliban’s attack on the city of Kunduz.
“I do not support the idea of endless war,” Obama said. “Yet, given what's at stake in Afghanistan … I am firmly convinced that we should make this extra effort.”
That extra effort comes with a higher price tag.
Keeping 5,500 troops at multiple locations will cost the U.S. about $14.6 billion a year, up from the estimated cost of $10 billion to retain a force at the Kabul embassy, according to administration officials.
Doug Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said that estimate could rise to $20 billion per year since the current projection includes only money for ground troops, assistance to the Afghan government and payments to government contractors.
“It could easily end up being $3 billion higher and nobody’s going to blink an eye,” he said, especially if military leaders determine they need more forces.
Late last year the Congressional Research Service released a report that concluded the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost U.S. taxpayers $1.6 trillion. The study found the war has Afghanistan cost $685 billion, a figure that has no doubt increased.
The president’s decision has apparently already been worked into the Defense Department’s budget plans for Afghan security forces.
"When I submit my 2017 budget, I will include critical financial support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to help it sustain its current force levels of 352,000 troops in 2017 and beyond," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday.
Ollivant said the new spending would like come from the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations account, commonly known as the war fund, which has been the object of considerable controversy in recent struggles over the federal budget.
Despite the cloudy budget outlook, Ollivant predicted congressional lawmakers will continue to fully fund the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and that Obama’s replacement may decide to keep force levels where they are, cementing the mission there as a “generational project.”
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Carter couldn’t say how long the 5,500 troops might stay in the country.
He said the force level “is our best estimate now of what we should plan for and are planning for and budgeting for in 2017” and could be altered by another president.
“This is our best guess and certainly was our advice to the president for what would be sufficient and a good basis for planning for 2017.”