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Debt Embedded in Iraq – Afghanistan Estimates Becomes Clearer April 8, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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President Obama’s FY2011 budget request “includes placeholder estimates [for overseas contingency operations] of $50 billion per year for 2012 and beyond” – estimates that strikingly “do not reflect any policy decisions about specific military or intelligence operations, but are only intended to indicate that some as-yet unknown costs are anticipated.”  This placeholder falls 69% below the president’s request for FY2011 ($159B).

Such a significant, unexplained decrease gives the immediate appearance of being politically driven.  Yet it is notionally achievable, and a serious effort at getting there begins with an on-schedule withdrawal from Iraq. That, however, has been thrown into doubt recently.

LtGen James Paxton, the Joint Staff’s director of Strategic Plans and Policy, offered a window on March 26th into the questions facing his office: “What’s the definition of ’out of Iraq?’…What is our security force arrangement? What do we have for mil-to-mil relationships? … And more importantly, what do we do with alliance building, coalition building, in the area?

These are all vital questions – ones that the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces agreement (SOFA) has addressed quite precisely: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”  Raising these questions, by implication, suggests that our intent may be changing.  And LtGen Paxton is not alone in opening up this angle.

ADM Eric Olson commands the special operations forces that conduct much of the alliance and coalition building referenced by LtGen Paxton.  In remarks last week, he indicated that “special operations forces are not experiencing a drawdown in Iraq. All indications including my conversations with Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno is that the special operations forces will be sustained at about their current level. And so supporting them will become – is a continued mission of the rest of the force.

That some U.S. forces, and particularly the 4,500 special operations forces presently deployed, might remain in Iraq should come as little surprise.  Teams of trainers, advisors, and liaisons are a standard part of America’s bilateral defense relationships.  Given this tradition, in fact, it’s more surprising that the U.S. agreed to the absolute withdrawal standard set forth in the SOFA.

We did make that commitment, however, and – setting policy implications aside – it would allow for sizeable budget savings.  Yet those policy implications cannot truly be set aside.  As a consequence, reality is moving further and further from the president’s placeholder for operations from FY2012 onward.

A FY2012 request considerably above $50 billion for overseas contingency operations already was foreseeable, and LtGen Paxton’s and ADM Olson’s comments have made it even more evident.  The foreseeable now must be foreseen.  Estimates that “do not reflect any policy decisions about specific military or intelligence operations” will not suffice.  The administration owes Congress and the American people a transparent projection of the costs we are likely to incur, both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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