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Costs ‘front-and-center’ for Afghan drawdown

There’s a bit of daylight opening up between the top leadership at the Pentagon and the White House over the factors that will determine how many troops Obama will pull out of Afghanistan next month.

The Washington Post reported May 31 that the most important factor that Obama’s national security team will be considering when it makes its decision on whom, how many and from where to pull out this summer will be cost, not success metrics.

Crack Post Afghanistan correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote this:

The U.S. military is on track to spend $113 billion on its operations in Afghanistan this fiscal year, and it is seeking $107 billion for the next. To many of the president’s civilian advisers, that price is too high, given a wide federal budget gap that will require further cuts to domestic programs and increased deficit spending. Growing doubts about the need for such a broad nation-building mission there in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death have only sharpened that view.
When pressed the next day, White House press secretary Jay Carney distanced himself from that sentiment, saying Obama hadn’t “asked for a bill on how much it would cost” to meet his goals in Afghanistan.
He wanted a policy that would -- had the best chance of succeeding, at achieving our goals, which were very clearly defined, which is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda and to ensure that Afghanistan would not again become a haven for terrorists, and to take the steps necessary to make that come true.

That remains -- what the President has been doing since then is implementing this policy, obviously with his military and the rest of the administration.  Part of that policy was to begin a drawdown in July 2011.

But at a meeting with defense reporters in Washington on Thursday, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said costs are, and always have been, paramount in decisions on deployments and withdrawals.

“There is not a decision in government where cost is not front-and-center, including Afghanistan,” Mullen said. “So in all of the discussions we are having, cost is right in the middle of the mix.”

“It’s been an issue for a significant period of time” in the discussions of the mission in Afghanistan, Mullen added.

But Carney may have been hinting where the administration is going to find some wiggle room in the cost analysis. The limited goals of “defeating al Qaeda” and making sure Afghanistan doesn’t “become a haven for terrorists” may not mean continuing a costly COIN strategy. And it’s likely Mullen (and other chiefs) are on board with that, since there’s little love for the nation building that COIN demands.

In a story we’ll be running tomorrow morning on Military.com, Mullen championed the cause of hardware at the expense of pay and benefits for troops, arguing the U.S. military shouldn’t simply be the best COIN force in the world, but still needs to prepare for “high-end warfighting.” Over $100 billion in resources sucked away from service budgets in one year (and the political capitol spent to win that money) to fund bridges and wells in Afghanistan when we have airborne tankers that are more than 50 years old?

It’s likely more than just Obama and his White House pushing for a cost calculation to the drawdown...

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