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The Costs of the Afghanistan War

Telling us how many dollars have been spent on the war in Afghanistan is fundamental to the Department of Defense’s (DOD) effort to garner public and congressional support for prosecution of the war. It should also be a simple question. It is not.

The Department of Defense (DOD) testified to Congress on July 31, 2007 that the war in Afghanistan had cost $78.1 billion. The seeming precision of the decimal point notwithstanding, the number is laughably inaccurate. Here’s why:

The 78.1 billion is DOD “obligations” as of May 2007. Obligations are neither Congress’s appropriations nor the amount DOD has actually spent. Instead, DOD describes them as “orders placed, contracts awarded, services received, or similar transactions that will require payments.” In short, obligations are what DOD thinks it might spend. For DOD’s obligations for Afghanistan going as far back as 2001, there has been no effort by the department to document what was actually spent.

The obligations declared by DOD for Afghanistan are not just for Afghanistan. They are for Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes Afghanistan but also DOD operations in the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, and “elsewhere” (DOD’s term). The Defense Department has not informed the public, or apparently even Congress, how those costs break down.

DOD’s obligations also do not include transfers of funds from regular, annual appropriations from the non-war part of the DOD budget. These may be as much as $7 billion for both Iraq and Afghanistan. There is also an additional $5.5 billion that analysts at the Congressional Research Services (CRS) believe was made available for expenditure in Iraq and Afghanistan but which no one has been able to track.

DOD’s figures also do not include classified intelligence activities. According to CRS, Congress appropriated $27 billion for intelligence efforts related to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The breakdown between the two is unknown to the public and perhaps to Congress.

DOD’s figures also do not include the costs incurred by the State Department for diplomatic operations and reconstruction aid in Afghanistan and it does not include costs to the Veterans Administration (VA) to care for the US wounded coming home from there. The future VA cost to care for Afghan War veterans is only beginning to accrue now; it will be many billions of dollars.

Funding for Iraq and Afghanistan has included huge amounts that have little or no real relationship to the wars. This spending includes piles of money for C-17, C-130J, V-22 and other aircraft that would see the skies over either theater only if the wars are still raging three to five years from now when these aircraft actually come off their production lines. Several billions of dollars have also been requested to fund the Army’s reorganization into “modular” brigades– a plan that precedes the wars by several years and that would be funded without them. Despite their weak relationship to the fighting, this and other problematic spending has all appeared in Congress’ “emergency” appropriations for the wars and, thus, should be included in the accounting of the funding for them.

DOD has combined whatever records it retains for money spent in Afghanistan with the money spent for all other DOD purposes. As such, the money actually spent for Afghanistan– and Iraq– cannot be separated and identified; it is unknown today, and thanks to DOD’s record keeping it is unknowable for the ages.

Surveying this fiscal junkyard in its May 18 report to Congress, “Global War on Terror: Reported Obligations for the Department of Defense,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) termed DOD’s spending data on the wars “to be of questionable reliability” and “should be considered approximations.” The auditors at GAO are well practiced at understatement on such subjects.

Rather than just curse the darkness, CRS has attempted to sort through the morass to make estimates of what has been available to DOD for Afghanistan under the moniker Operation Enduring Freedom. The latest results, from CRS’ “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, Updated July 16, 2007,” are shown in the table below:

Appropriations Estimated by CRS for Operation Enduring Freedom, $Billions, Current Dollars, by Fiscal Year.

Year

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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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