Ending Wars on Time Would Save $200 Billion, One-Sixth of Debt Reduction Goal

By Thanksgiving, the Congressional “Super Committee” is supposed to come up with $1.2 trillion in debt reduction over the next ten years. The Super Committee can include anything it wants in its package – short-term economic stimulus (like extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax holiday), revenue increases from curtailing tax breaks, cuts in military or domestic spending, subject only to two constraints. To avoid automatic cuts, the package has to add up to $1.2 trillion in debt reduction over ten years. Also, to avoid automatic cuts, the package has to pass both houses of Congress in December, so the package has to have the property that it can pass the House and Senate.

A plausible and reasonable option would be to curtail future spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, consistent with keeping existing agreements and commitments to withdraw our troops, rather than replacing these agreements and commitments with agreements to establish permanent military garrisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under plausible and moderate assumptions, this would save at least $200 billion over ten years, one-sixth of the Super Committee's debt reduction goal.

In Afghanistan, although the president has promised and NATO has agreed that foreign “combat” troops should come out by 2014, the Pentagon is negotiating to establish a permanent military garrison of 25,000 troops, even though everyone knows that an agreement to withdraw all US troops is an essential ingredient of a peace deal to end the war. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the current cost of keeping US troops in Afghanistan is $694,000 per soldier per year. So, using the CRS number, the cost of keeping 25,000 troops in Afghanistan from 2015 until 2021 would be about $120 billion.

In Iraq, although the president has promised and under the US-Iraq status of forces agreement all US troops are supposed to come home by December 31, the Pentagon is currently negotiating to establish a permanent military garrison of 10,000 troops. According to CRS, the current cost of keeping US troops in Iraq is $802,000 per soldier per year. So, using the CRS number, the cost of keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq from 2012 until 2021 would be about $80 billion.

These numbers are surely underestimates of the true costs of the long-term troop commitments, in part because as you reduce the number of troops, the average cost per soldier tends to rise, since fixed costs are divided over a smaller number of troops. So, the average cost per soldier when we get to 10,000 in Iraq and 25,000 in Afghanistan is likely to be higher than it is today. (This would explain why the per-soldier cost in Iraq is now higher than in Afghanistan, even though things like fuel delivery are much more expensive in Afghanistan.)

These numbers are estimates – just like every other prediction about the future that the Super Committee is going to have to assume in order to talk about ten years of debt reduction. If someone has better numbers than this, let them come forward. In fact, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores future budget decisions, the “savings” of this plan would be far greater than $200 billion, because CBO compares future allocations to current spending adjusted for inflation; I return to this issue below. But here, I am talking about “real savings” – the likely difference between the world if the Congress takes a proposed action and the world if Congress does not take the proposed action.

Thus, pulling out our troops from Afghanistan and Iraq when we already said we were going to will save at least $200 billion over ten years, compared to the world in which we do not do this. And this $200 billion represents one-sixth of the Super Committee's mandate for debt reduction.

One of the reasons that ending the wars on time has gotten less attention than it deserves as a means of debt reduction is, paradoxically, that the paper savings of such an action would be too high. This is because 1) CBO scores future budget choices against current spending adjusted for inflation, and 2) as troops are drawn down to lower levels, even under the Pentagon's plans, this will cost less money than in the past because fewer troops cost less than more troops: 10,000 troops in Iraq cost much less than 46,000 troops and 25,000 troops in Afghanistan cost much less than 100,000 troops. This has led some to say that claimed savings from ending the wars are “phony,” because the CBO numbers don't represent “real savings,” because they don't compare the world as a result of a proposed action to the likely world if the action is not taken.

But the above calculation of $200 billion in savings from ending the wars on time shows that while some of the savings of ending the wars as scored by CBO may be “phony,” they are not all “phony.” Less is less than more, but less is not at all the same thing as zero. Keeping 25,000 troops in Afghanistan and 10,000 troops in Iraq until 2021 will not cost what we have been spending, but it will not cost zero. It will cost $200 billion. Avoiding that cost is a real savings, one-sixth of the goal. There is no ceiling on the paper savings that the Super Committee can recommend. Including the savings from ending the wars on time would result in some paper savings as scored by CBO that are not real. But there's nothing to stop the Super Committee from saying: we understand that some of these paper savings are not real, so in measuring our recommendation against the $1.2 trillion target, we're only going to count this as $200 billion. Will anyone complain if the Super Committee comes up with more than $1.2 trillion in debt reduction on paper, if they only credit the real savings from ending the wars toward the $1.2 trillion target?

In addition, if you believe that, objectively, the projected debt of the United States over the next ten years is too high (I do not personally advocate this belief, but the professed belief that this is the case is the premise of the debt debate), then any measure which reduces future indebtedness should count in full, even if in part it is an action already anticipated. Of course, some people don't want reduced war spending to count because, for example, they want to cut Social Security benefits. But that is a political argument, not arithmetic.

Of course, in the case of Afghanistan, it would be possible to save much more money if in addition to having zero troops there after 2014, we would draw troops down faster until 2014 than the Pentagon has in mind. But that would be a much higher political hurdle for the Super Committee to jump over. So far, ending the wars has only made a few cameo appearances in the debt reduction discussion. It makes sense to try to get our foot in the door and keep it there with a “reasonable proposal” that has a plausible chance of passing Congress by December.

It's plausible that the Super Committee would consider ending the wars on time as a means of saving money, because the House almost passed the same idea when it almost passed McGovern's amendment on Afghanistan. The idea of the McGovern amendment was to say to the administration: we're not telling you what the timetable for withdrawal should be. You tell us what the timetable is, and then stick to it. This idea got more than 200 votes on the floor of the House.

And if we can get the Super Committee to take up the issue of future war funding as part of its deliberations, in three ways this would constitute the best opportunity that the Congress has had to cut future war spending since 2001.

First, in the regular course of its deliberations, Congress doesn't usually consider war spending over ten years. It typically considers war spending over the next one to two years. From the point of view of directly using the “power of the purse” to end wars, this is quite unfortunate, because the marginal member of Congress who wants to end the wars is extremely reluctant in most circumstances to vote against funding current military operations or near future military operations that are already underway. In recent votes on Afghanistan, nearly half the House was willing to vote for a policy measure saying that there should be a timetable for withdrawal. But less than a quarter of the House was willing to vote to cut off funding. Likewise, despite all the criticism in the House of the illegal and unconstitutional war in Libya, at the end of the day, the House could not bring itself to defund the war, or even to vote to prohibit anything the US was already doing. It could only bring itself to vote to prohibit things that the US had not yet done (uniformed ground troops, arming the rebels.)

There is a cartoon version of the justification for this: “I don't want to be accused of voting against funding for the troops,” as if a soldier is going to fire his gun and no bullets will come out because Congress hasn't paid the bills. I doubt that many people actually believe this cartoon. But underneath the cartoon version is the reality that members of Congress are in general extremely reluctant to “micromanage” ongoing military operations. Instead, the marginal war critic would typically prefer to have his or her say by pushing the administration to adopt a different course of action, rather than explicitly mandating it (although the threat of a mandate is often an extremely useful form of pushing.)

But if the Super Committee considers the ten-year path of war spending, it's a totally different ballgame. Will a Super Committee plan that we will spend zero money in 2021 on occupying Afghanistan and Iraq be faulted as “not supporting the troops”? I'd love to see that. Bring it on.

Second, for the last ten years, war spending has been essentially “off the books.” No budget trade-offs were necessary to vote for war funding, neither tax increases, nor cuts in other spending. In that sense, voting for war spending was free. But now, the Super Committee and the Congress have a fixed target of $1.2 trillion for debt reduction over ten years. Every dollar not taken from military spending will be a dollar taken from somewhere else. This is in a political context in which some people want the Super Committee to cut Social Security benefits and raise the Medicare retirement age, a proposal deeply hated by many, many Democrats; and some people want the Super Committee to raise taxes, a proposal deeply hated by many, many Republicans. (Some people want the Super Committee to do both.) Democrats: if the choice is between ending the wars on time, or cutting Social Security benefits, which would you choose? Republicans: if the choice is between ending the wars on time, or raising taxes, which would you choose? Those two questions are potentially the basis of a majority in Congress for ending the wars on time.

Third, any agreement that emerges from the Super Committee is by definition bipartisan. So, if a proposal to end the wars on time can emerge from the Super Committee, it can't be tarred on a partisan basis as “cut and run.” In this sense, by giving a bipartisan stamp on the idea of ending the wars on time, the Super Committee can serve the function of an “Iraq Study Group” and “Afghanistan Study Group.”

What needs to happen for this idea to become reality? One thing that needs to happen is for people to talk it up to members of Congress. A partial list of Congressional town halls is here. Or you can write to Congress, supporting Lynn Woolsey's letter urging the Super Committee to consider cutting war spending, here.