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Bill for Afghan war could run into the trillions

Eli Clifton
Inter Press Service
May 18, 2010

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate is moving forward with a 59-billion-dollar spending bill, of which 33.5 billion dollars would be allocated for the war in Afghanistan.

However, some experts here in Washington are raising concerns that the war may be unwinnable and that the money being spent on military operations in Afghanistan could be better spent.

“We’re making all of the same mistakes the Soviets made during their time in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, and they left in defeat having accomplished none of their purposes,” Michael Intriligator, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute, said Monday at a half-day conference hosted by the New America Foundation and Economists for Peace and Security.

“I think we’re repeating that and it’s a history we’re condemned to repeat,” he said.

Intriligator also argued that the real, long-term cost of the war in Afghanistan may completely overshadow the current spending bill.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes estimated that the long-term costs – taking into account the costs of taking care of wounded soldiers and rebuilding the military – of the war in Iraq will ultimately cost three trillion dollars.

Intriligator suggested that a similar calculation for the costs of the war in Afghanistan would indicate a long-term cost of 1.5 to 2.0 trillion dollars.

“Why are we putting money into Afghanistan to fight a losing war and following the Soviet example rather than putting money into [our] local communities?” he asked.

The Senate has been under pressure to approve the spending bill before the Memorial Day recess at the end of the month.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the 59-billion-dollar bill drafted by the committee’s Chairman Daniel Inouye and Sen. Thad Cochran.

Gaining the approval of the Senate Appropriations committee may be the easy part in the push to get the bill to Obama’s desk by the end of the month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already indicated that the spending bill will face more intense opposition in the House as congressional Democrats are predicted to offer put up some resistance to the funding for Obama’s 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan.

Experts at the event today expressed their concern with both the physical cost of the war as well as the tradeoffs in spending required by the ongoing costs of fighting the Taliban insurgency.

“The climate bill, for all its defects, if it has a prayer of passing, might provide some of the money we need to keep the momentum on building a green economy going. But so could the savings from an Afghan drawdown,” said Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Intriligator emphasised the human cost of fighting a counterinsurgency campaign not just for U.S. soldiers but for Afghan civilians.

“We can’t distinguish the insurgents or Taliban from the rest of population so we kill a lot of innocent civilians,” he said.

A number of think tank events this week and the Obama administration’s push to gain support in Congress for the supplemental appropriations bill coincided with a high-profile visit last week by Afghan President Hamid Karzai who spent four days in meetings with Obama and members of his cabinet as well as with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Karzai’s trip to Washington and the warm reception afforded to him by the White House and lawmakers appeared to be part of a public relations offensive to build support in Washington for Karzai’s government and Obama’s troop surge.

Karzai’s visit came as polls have shown a major downturn in U.S. support for the war in Afghanistan and support amongst NATO allies has been dwindling.

In early April, news emerged that Karzai, in a closed door meeting, threatened to drop out of politics and join the Taliban.

A senior Obama administration official retorted that Karzai might be sampling “Afghanistan’s biggest export” – a reference to the widespread opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

The publicity campaign is facing an uphill battle this month but the administration has much to gain by putting a good face on the U.S. relationship with Karzai.

Indeed, the White House will need Karzai’s cooperation if it is to get Congressional support for passing the spending bill and will require Karzai’s assistance if Obama is to meet his goal of beginning U.S. troop withdrawals by mid-2011.

Karzai’s trip appears to have made some progress in showing off a “reset” relationship between the Obama White House and the Karzai government but a number of voices here in Washington are raising concerns over whether a U.S. victory in Afghanistan is possible by mid-2011 or at any time in the near future.

“The fear was that if we withdraw from Afghanistan there will be civil war and external great powers will take sides. Is that worse than losing American soldiers day after day? So there’s a civil war. So the regional great partners take sides. Why wouldn’t they? It’s their neighbours. It’s their borders.” said Michael Lind, policy director of the Economic Growth Programme at the New America Foundation, at Monday’s conference.

This article originally ran at Inter Press Service.

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