WikiLeaks Files Expose the Real Cost of War in Afghanistan

Today, both another crucial turning point and inflection point are upon us in the war in Afghanistan.  Last night, as most of America was preparing for the season 4 premier of Mad Men, WikiLeaks unveiled a slew of previously classified documents pertaining to the war effort in Afghanistan. In doing so, WikiLeaks “Hope[s] its release will lead to a comprehensive understanding of the war in Afghanistan and provide the raw ingredients necessary to change its course.”

Based on these documents, the war effort has been far more difficult and significantly less successful than meets the public’s eye.  WikiLeaks asserts that the “archive shows the vast range of small tragedies that are almost never reported by the press but which account for the overwhelming majority of deaths and injuries. [emphasis from original]”  In order to highlight the misleading classification of incidents and casualties in the war, WikiLeaks produced the following map:

WikiLeaks map of Afghanistan incidents paints a different picture of the US war effort.

With these documents coming to light on the eve of a day in which the Taliban declared they have killed one US sailor and held another captive, one can expect increasing concern over the prospects for a timely resolution to what has already become the longest ever US war.  In my very first post on the Wall St. Cheat Sheet, I put forward the idea that the discovery (or publication) of vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan represented a crucial turning point in the US war effort.  In a later post, I argued that in order to improve the outlook of our long-term fiscal deficit, it is essential to end our foreign war interventions.

In many respects, the WikiLeaks report makes clear that what began as a war to eradicate from power the terrorists who planned 9/11, has largely taken on a life and mind of its own.  This is an incredibly costly endeavor–in terms of both the human and monetary cost–which is increasingly paying little dividends both in terms of nation-building in Afghanistan and building a safer national security landscape at home in the US.  Defense spending accounts for 23% of our national budget, with outlays for the war itself receiving special budgetary treatment outside the scope of our formal budget.   Altogether, US defense spending adds up to nearly the entirety of the rest of the world’s defense spending combined.  If we are to take seriously the prospect of cutting our long term deficit, it’s impossible to ignore the cost of these dual wars.

In an Economist/YouGov Poll from April 2010, asking Americans the areas where it would be most desirable to cut government spending, 22% agreed that national defense was an area to cut.  While this was not the most popular area (foreign aid, a mere 1% of our budget, was an agreed upon area to cut for 71% of Americans), national defense was way up on the consensus list, especially when compared to Medicare and Social Security, both receiving 7% of the vote.  It’s hard to believe that a component of the unpopularity of foreign aid amounts to what people perceive as nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan post-battle stage of the wars.  It’s about time that we earnestly discuss the costs and benefits of these dual wars and their impact on our overall fiscal health.