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
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
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 at this link.
Being a professional and ethical piece of work, the CRS study explains its
own limitations and uncertainties. Those include the unknown amounts for Operation
Enduring Freedom that are not for Afghanistan but for the Horn of Africa, the
Philippines, and “elsewhere.” They also include an apportionment
of costs for Congress’ extraneous appropriations for aircraft and other
items unlikely ever to be deployed, pre-existing Army reorganizations, and such.
Thus, for an accounting of strictly defined war costs in Afghanistan, the CRS
study actually is an approximation.
On the other hand, DOD’s assertion of just $78.1 billion for the Afghan
war is so full of holes and misinformation that it has no credibility. Based
on the far more complete and transparent CRS analysis, DOD’s numbers are
literally about half right.
The Chinese war philosopher, Sun Tzu, said –
If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred
If you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one;
If you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled
in every single battle.
Even with the help of CRS’ analysis, our knowledge of a fundamental element
of the war in Afghanistan, its cost, is quite imperfect. Based on Sun Tzu’s
prescription, it would appear that one of the biggest impediments to a favorable
outcome in Afghanistan is the misinformation to Congress and the nation from
the Department of Defense.
Winslow T. Wheeler worked for Republican and Democratic senators and the
Government Accountability Office over a 31 year career on Capitol Hill. He joined
the Center for Defense Information in 2002.