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Collateral damage: Cost of each US soldier in Afghanistan soars to $2.1 mln

Published time: October 25, 2013 12:51
US army soldiers march from the Forward Base Honaker Miracle at Watahpur District in Kunar province during a joint patrol led by the Afghan National Army to Operating Post Rocky to conduct artillery fire training with 6/1 Kandak, on April 18, 2013. (AFP Photo)

US army soldiers march from the Forward Base Honaker Miracle at Watahpur District in Kunar province during a joint patrol led by the Afghan National Army to Operating Post Rocky to conduct artillery fire training with 6/1 Kandak, on April 18, 2013. (AFP Photo)

The cost of keeping each American soldier in Afghanistan is set to nearly double to 2.1 million, at the same time that crucial sectors of the US military are underfunded, according to a new analysis of the Pentagon’s budget.

US military planners are scrambling to explain why the cost has ballooned to $2.1 million, after holding steady at $1.3 million annually for the past five years.

The budget for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) acknowledges a 39 percent reduction in US forces in Afghanistan, yet total expenditures for the operation drops by only 10 percent.

Pentagon officials blame the additional cost on shutting down bases and shipping equipment and personnel back home as forces evacuate Afghanistan, but not everybody agrees with this explanation as to why the cost per soldier has dramatically increased.

“One would also expect to have observed a similar increase in costs when these forces were initially deployed to Afghanistan,” said Todd Harrison, a researcher with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis.

“It was a bit of a shocker to me,” Harrison told Defense One, a military newsletter.

During the surge years of 2010 and 2011, when additional troops and equipment were shipped into Afghanistan, military bases were built or expanded, and new equipment was purchased, there was no visible increase in expenditures, he explained in his report, titled: “Chaos and Uncertainty.”

“These initial deployment costs could in theory be greater than redeployment costs, especially given that large amounts of equipment are not being returned to the United States during the drawdown currently underway,” Harrison reasoned in the report.

Indeed, much of the military hardware in Afghanistan is being turned into scrap metal as the 12-year military operation enters its planned last phase.

It was reported in June that US officials in Afghanistan are engaged in a “massive disposal effort, which US military officials call unprecedented that entails  the United States scrapping more than $7 billion worth of equipment…because it is no longer needed or would be too costly to ship back home.”

The US military has already destroyed more than 77,000 metric tons of military equipment.

The budget analyst said costs associated with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as the support structure for troops on the ground remains “are not likely to decline,” despite a drop in the number of military personnel stationed in the Central Asian hotspot.

Harrison also notes the cost of training and equipping Afghan security forces – who will be required to fill the security void when US forces complete their exit to the tune of $7.7 billion – as yet another reason for the rising cost of the Afghan war.

Included in the higher cost per service member is the cost of private contractors used to perform military functions previously performed by military personnel, such as “laundry, food service, maintenance, and some security functions.”

All of these factors have contributed to make the Afghan war exceedingly expensive for the US taxpayer.

To spend or not to spend


Ironically, as the price tag associated with fielding US soldiers in Afghanistan goes through the roof, US military spending is suffering major setbacks on other fronts.

At an annual conference for the Association of the US Army held this week, military leaders spoke out on spending cuts that are having a negative impact on the armed forces.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno revealed that just two Army brigades are combat-ready since the cuts forced the Pentagon to cancel six months of military training.

“And there's going to come a time when we just simply don't have enough money to provide what I believe to be the right amount of ground forces to [carry out]... contingency operations,” Odierno told reporters.

A brigade is comprised of between 3,200 and 5,000 soldiers.

"The worst-case scenario is you ask me to deploy thousands of soldiers somewhere and we have not properly trained them to go because we simply don't have the dollars and money because of the way sequestration is laid out," Odierno added, referring to automatic budget cuts.

Harrison’s report, meanwhile, compares the current military drawdown with the Vietnam era, suggesting expenditures “could fall to roughly $62 billion, the level reached at the end of the 1980s.” The author goes on to warn that a drop in military funding could result in major programs being canceled or delayed, “such as the Joint Strike Fighter, the next-generation bomber, and the expanded payload module for Virginia class submarines.”

Such a turn of events for the US military, which at the present time seems unfathomable considering the heady levels of spending, as well as the power that defense industry lobbyists now enjoy in Congress, would “adversely affect the future capability of US forces, particularly in a more contested environment than that experienced in either Iraq or Afghanistan.”

The next government sequester is set to take place in January 2014, which could see the Defense Department’s budget slashed by $21 billion.