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Paying for the Afghanistan Surge December 2, 2009

Posted by Rebecca Williams in Analysis.

Paying for the Afghanistan Surge

By Gordon Adams

While costs will not dictate how we pay for the Obama surge in Afghanistan, they will be a subject of strong debate in the Congress.  There are many unknowns about the costs and still a lot of work being done in the executive branch to figure them out.

Costs, after all, were not the constraint put on the policy decision and it was noticeable that OMB Director Peter Orszag was only brought into the discussion very late in the decision-making game.

What should we anticipate and how should we think about the costs of the surge?

First, $30 billion is the “figure du jour,” but it is not likely to be the right number.  CRS estimates would lead to the conclusion that about $1 billion per thousand troops is a good ballpark if you are using your own personal envelope.  However, two other elements are likely to enter in: accelerated deployment, and non-military costs.

The President has decided to deploy quickly, which means much of the troops and equipment will be airlifted to Afghanistan.  Airlift is substantially more expensive than sealift, which could raise the costs to deploy.

And there has been no discussion of associated security assistance and civilian assistance programs.  While the FY2010 budget did include funding for both (more than $8 billion in DOD security and foreign assistance; $2.8 billion in State/USAID economic assistance) the commitment the President made for civilian assistance is likely to go beyond that budget request, and will add to the FY 2010 bill.

Second, will the administration offset those costs, so we don’t have to borrow more to pay for them?  Simple answer: No.  This is going to be an FY 2010 budget supplemental, coming to Congress sometime next year, when the fiscal year is roughly half gone.  No way is DOD or State going to find offsets in existing, appropriated funds it can cut to support such a large bill.  And no way is DOD going to reprogram funding to this purpose; they are limited by a reprogramming ceiling well under $5 billion a year.

Third, this means a defense and an international affair supplemental is on its way to Congress.  It is necessary because the cost of the surge was not budgeted.  And it will not be offset.  So it will likely fly in the face of the commitment the administration made nearly a year ago to fund war costs as part of the regular budget process, not as supplementals or “emergency” spending. Probably necessary, but breaking that commitment nonetheless.

Fourth, what will Congress do with it?  Short answer: pass it.  While a good number of members will want to debate the policy in the framework of the funding, if history is any guide, very few will want to leave themselves vulnerable to the charge that they did not support forward deployed forces, especially in an election year.

Don’t get me wrong.  There will be a debate and lots of “virtual ink” spilled over such issues as a tax on the wealthy, excessive spending, the deficit, the urgency of job creation, fiscal recovery, and the health bill.

But in the end, the funds will be provided.  Either the administration will get enough Republican support to pass it with reduced Democratic support, or enough side deals will be cut with Democrats to obtain that support.  But it will pass.



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