Here is an interesting statistic to consider about the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan: Forty-nine soldiers and Marines have died in combat this year; 13 NATO troops have been killed by Afghanistan forces this year. U.S. casualties so far this year average 21 a month, and, at that rate, 252 U.S. military personnel will die in Afghanistan in 2012—far fewer than the 418 killed in 2011 or the record 499 killed in 2010.
Combat operations are becoming less risky for U.S. military personnel. But working alongside and among Afghans has never been more deadly. My colleague, Yochi Dreazen, took care to note the 13 NATO troops killed in his report on the testimony of Marine Gen. John Allen, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. Allen had never disclosed that number before.
Americans in greater numbers than ever before (50 percent, according to USA Today; 57 percent, according to Pew Research; and 54 percent, according to The Washington Post—all this month) want President Obama to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Embedded in those numbers lie deep doubts about what the war is now about and what’s left to be done that can be done. What’s more, death has become suddenly different in Afghanistan, more chilling and disturbing—peppered with Vietnam-era words like “fragging” and “massacre.” Perceptions are changing; minds may be, too. When that happens, policy and votes morph into something new. That’s called a tipping point. We may be living through it now.
(A side note. Buried in Monday night’s pool report of Vice President Joe Biden’s fundraiser in New Jersey was this potentially telling remark from Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.: “If you want to talk about … reducing and changing our mission in Afghanistan, it is the expertise of Vice President Biden that has been extraordinary.” Reducing and changing. Present tense. Hmm.)
The massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly at the hands of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, has intensified national misgivings. Allen said that no changes in troop withdrawals are contemplated, but that feels and sounds like a placeholder sentiment. With roughly 91,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the scheduled withdrawal of the remaining 23,000 “surge” forces will be completed in September. The training of Afghan army and police forces will continue apace; by year’s end, Afghans will take the lead in 75 percent of security operations, according to administration projections. The sturdiness of these timetables, it seems, has never been more tenuous.
The great question in Washington is whether Republicans will follow the polls on Afghanistan. For the first time, a narrow majority of Republicans favor a faster pullout from Afghanistan than the current plan calls for (the administration wants a full handover of operations by the end of 2014).
“Public opinion is shifting, certainly,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told me. “The mission is unclear. And even Republicans who support staying in Afghanistan go to the president’s 2014 timeline. No one is talking about staying indefinitely.”
Paul wants a faster U.S. withdrawal and says that cracks are appearing in the GOP’s finish-the-job coalition. “I wouldn’t be surprised if five or 10 more Republicans were willing to speed up the timeline for withdrawal.”
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., has been calling for an exit from Afghanistan for years.
“Why in the world would either party believe we can change things there?” Jones asked. When asked if the Republican position is moving, Jones responded: “It’s beginning to come my way. Slowly, my Republican colleagues are beginning to see that it is senseless. But we still have the problem of the leadership being unwilling to take a stand. How many more kids have to die?”
Paul and Jones know they can do little unless and until GOP opinion shifts—and shifts markedly. Paul, for one, won’t vote to cut off funds for Afghanistan operations. “Ultimately, it’s the president’s call,” he says. Jones would cut off funds but understands he doesn’t have the votes for it. Outside the Beltway, he is encouraging the GOP-controlled North Carolina Legislature to call for a faster timetable for withdrawal, hoping other GOP-run legislatures will follow suit.
According to the Pentagon’s inspector general, U.S. operations in Afghanistan cost $5.3 billion in October and $5.3 billion in November. That’s down from the monthly average of $7.8 billion per month in fiscal 2011 ($93.6 billion total). The United States is on pace to spend about $60 billion this fiscal year.
That amount—$60 billion annually—would fund many pending projects that Congress is now tied in knots trying to finance. For example, $60 billion would pay for a third year of projects in the pending Senate transportation bill ($54.5 billion). Or it could cover about three years of protecting Medicare patients from scheduled reimbursement cuts to their doctors ($21.6 billion per year). There are other options as well: $60 billion saved for two years running would pay for a two-year fix to shield middle-class taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax ($137 billion), or cover half of another extension of the current 2 percent Social Security payroll-tax cut ($112 billion a year).
Jones and Paul say that grassroots conservatives—in vast and unappreciated numbers—have already soured on the Afghanistan war and want treasure poured into that conflict brought back home. Instinctively, both lawmakers say, conservative Republicans know the long-term costs of caring for the physically and mentally wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan will be staggering. And they want those costs capped—not exponentially increased by two more years of war.
“That bill is coming,” Jones said, estimating the over-the-horizon rehabilitation, mental-health, and life-maintenance costs at $5 trillion. “This is a hole with no end to it.”
This article appears in the March 21, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.