Getting Out of Afghanistan and The Defense Problem

>> Monday, November 30, 2009

With our President prepared to send 40,000 more soldiers into Afghanistan a serious discussion has arisen about the future of our commitment there. I have written before about the time and material required for nation building. Back then i was much more willing to devote what was needed to the long struggle of fixing Afghanistan. The nature of the mission has changed and so has my support for sending more resources, more men and women, to that country. Unfortunately the United States has a real problem with our orientation towards the military.

Matt Yglesias posted today on the personnel expenditures for the US armed forces. By his estimates it came to about $300 Billion. The fact that people related expenses make up about 50% of the money that the United States spends on defense has implications related not only to the idea of balancing the budget but our foriegn policy itself. Has Yglesias notes

In policy terms, Arkedis makes the point that this means you can’t make any really large reductions in the defense budget purely by going after the interests of the contractors who make weapons systems. The soldiers themselves are the military’s most important weapons, and also the most expensive ones. And the only way to reduce these costs is to either have fewer soldiers, or else to over time accept a lower quality of recruits. And that in turn would mean giving them either fewer missions, less ambitious missions, or some combination of the two.

This is worth thinking about not only in terms of Afghanistan, but also in broader strategic terms. Over time as technology advances and wages and health care costs rise, most organizations seek to do their work in a less labor-intensive manner. But the rise of counterinsurgency doctrine in the military implies a shift in the direction of a more labor-intensive strategic concept. There are some good reasons for this turn, but it has a lot of underdiscussed and underdebated budgetary implications.

The cost of supporting the soldiers in the military is going to be higher as the congress appropriates more money for mental health services and greater veterans benefits. President Obama has discussed increasing the size of the military. From all appearances our military spending is going to increase in the future and not decrease. A shift to counter insurgency wars would guarantee the increase.

The United States seems to have locked itself into a position where we depend on our military strength. Much our power seems to revolve around the strength of our military and our ability to provide a defense guarantee to our allies. This is a powerful if inflexible tool. This means that our allies are free to defy us and our interests without a real fear that we will pull back our defense umbrella on anything but the most essential of issues. Our military has assumed a position of paramount importance.

At the same time some in the senate, such as Evan Bayh, have become deficit obsessed. They are pushing for a commission that would reduce the structural deficit. What this ultimately is is a means of gutting any liberal agenda and gutting social security and Medicare. There is no chance that at this point in time with a shift towards counter insurgency, increased commitment to Afghanistan, the central importance of American military power, and the structure of military expenses that the Congress would touch defense expenditures.

President Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan rather than wind down the adventure means that the chances for eliminating the deficit with anything other than cuts in the social safety net are far fetched. It increases the role of the military and foreign adventure in American society. Given the economic problems that we currently suffer from it makes much more sense to pull back from foriegn adventures to fix our domestic problems. This is not what we are doing.


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