The implications of the Afghanistan Papers (which went largely unnoticed by the media at large).
We are now on our third President acting as commander-in-chief in the “Forever War.”
George W. Bush started it. Obama continued it. And Trump promised to end it, but hasn’t.
Ready for some depressing numbers? Take a deep breath:
- 2.5 Trillion — the total cost of the War in Afghanistan (including indirect costs such as military benefits and medical expenses), as estimated by the Institute for Spending Reform
- 2,400 — The number of U.S. military casualties since the start of the war.
- 18 — the number of years we’ve been in Afghanistan (note that babies born after 9/11 are now eligible to serve in the “war on terror”)
- 21 — the number of veterans who commit suicide every day.
For those who were paying attention, the recently released “Afghanistan Papers” showed that all of this has been for virtually nothing. They also revealed the extent to which we’ve been lied to with each extension of our military presence in the region.
The one silver lining is that it’s not too late to get out of Afghanistan — or at least to draw down troops to a bare minimum. Jonathan Bydlak, President of the Institute for Spending Reform, released a report that puts the costs of the War in Afghanistan in perspective, and proposes potential savings of up to $400 billion over the next four years.
President Trump take note: Americans and military alike support an end to the War in Afghanistan. Drawing down just 5,400 troops would generate massive savings for the American taxpayer. What are you waiting for?
TRANSCRIPT: Re-Thinking Afghanistan with Jonathan Bydlak
Bob Zadek: We are on a spending binge never seen before on this planet. Our country is spending so much money and getting so little to show for it. It is profoundly irrational. The fact that spending is so out of control really makes you question the very structure of our government. How is this sustainable and is there a point in which the chickens, as they say, will come home to roost, and something really horrible will happen? Or does this just go on and on and on and things for the average American get incrementally worse. Sort of like getting older, but nobody really notices it, and ultimately there will never be any payback for this spending binge that we are on.
It’s time to ask back one of our very favorite guests, Jonathan Bydlak. Jonathan is a spending guru. He’s also the enemy of out of control government spending. Jonathan is the director, the founder, and the head of the Institute for Spending Reform.The Institute for spending reform is a nonprofit, nonpartisan private organization which is dedicated to finding solutions to the escalating national debt. It produces lots of original insights of information and data, which it presents to Congress.
Jonathan began his career in the financial services industry in the private sector. He was an investment analyst for one of the country’s largest hedge funds. He’s been in an advisory role for numerous political candidates and he started his real political career working with Ron Paul in Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. Jonathan is the expert when it comes to matters of out of control government spending. Jonathan understands how we got here and he has a vision on how to get out of it. Jonathan, welcome to the show this morning.
Jonathan Bydlak: Thank you, Bob, for that amazing introduction.
The 8,000 Pound Gorilla of Defense Spending
Bob Zadek: Jonathan, you have had an amazing life and a productive life and you continue to labor in one of what has to be the most challenging nonprofit public sector jobs that could possibly be. Now on the subject of spending, of course, the 800 pound gorilla, maybe even 8,000 pound gorilla, is of course defense spending. And the 800 pound gorilla in the 8,000 pound gorilla in defense spending is the longest war in the history of the United States, the so-called war in Afghanistan. Even to call it a war is a misnomer because war has a very definite meaning. War requires a declaration of war by Congress and the president signing a bill acknowledging that we are at war and we have no such thing.
We have vague authorizations for the use of military force that go back to 2001 at a time when most Americans weren’t even alive, in 2001. We have this vague authorization for the use of military force that started all of this stuff. And there we are in Afghanistan declaring a war for which there never can be a peace. If we’re not at war with anybody special, with whom will we assemble on the decks of an aircraft carrier to sign the peace treaty? The answer is nobody special. So Jonathan, tell us about the enormity of the money we have spent and continue to spend in Afghanistan. How did we get here from a spending standpoint?
Jonathan Bydlak: When we think about the conflict in Afghanistan, we think a lot about the lives lost and the time. And we often times forget the treasure that we have expended on that conflict. The entire war on terror has caused massive amounts of money, but in Afghanistan specifically, the best estimates that we have is that in the last 18 to 19 years, we have spent nearly two and a half trillion dollars. That includes not just direct costs on fighting the actual conflict, but also on the costs of disability and healthcare for our veterans, which is not something we stop paying for of course once the conflict ends.
Then you think about things like these tanks and they get worn down or destroyed or what have you. We have to replace them. That has huge costs too. There are all sorts of costs in terms of military readiness that this conflict has had. I would argue it has made it more difficult to actually have a strong national defense. You mentioned in the beginning the defense budget, but it’s not really the defense budget that we are talking about at this point. You know, in many ways we’re talking about the nation building budget or maybe the offensive budget. All of us want a strong national defense.
But I think at this point we have accomplished what we intended to initially accomplish in Afghanistan, which was to strike back at those who struck us on 9/11. But the mission itself has morphed into something that is completely different than what we originally intended. And I don’t think the people who supported that conflict in 2001 would really have been supportive if they knew what Afghanistan would turn into. I’ll just add one other point, which is that if you read our own national defense strategy, it says that great power competition, rather than terrorism explicitly is the biggest concern we have in the current geopolitical world.
Afghanistan really does not fit into the things that our own military is telling us are the biggest defense challenges that we have as we press on in the 21st century. For all of those reasons, not just because of the fiscal costs but also from a strategic standpoint, I think it makes sense to rethink our role there and ultimately and work towards what the president has proposed, which is drawing down and ultimately leaving the country as soon as possible.
Assessing the Actual Cost of Afghanistan
Bob Zadek: You have published lots of material telling us the extent of this spending. Tell us how much the war in Afghanistan has cost us in real dollars.
Jonathan Bydlak: Since 2001 if you look at all of the spending that we have have engaged in overseas, it’s been primarily in two places. One is Afghanistan and the other of course is in Iraq. Out of all of the money that we’ve spent overseas since 2001 fighting these conflicts, 47% of that spending has been in Afghanistan and a little bit in Pakistan associated with that conflict. Afghanistan has been a huge part of what the military has been engaging in. Some of these costs are the direct costs of the expenditure of fighting the war. But there are other things, the base budget for example, that ends up increasing as a result of these conflicts.
There is increased Homeland Security spending. As I mentioned earlier, you have medical and disability for our veterans and those will continue. And the longer we stay there the more medical and disability issues we are going to have to have to pay for as a result of continued casualties. If you sum all of that up, the direct costs in Afghanistan are roughly $2 trillion dollars.
Bob Zadek: Tell us again how much that has cost and give us some sense of other items in the budget and give us some idea of what we could have done with 2 trillion dollars over the 18 years plus that we have been in Afghanistan.
Jonathan Bydlak: When you talk about the enormity of the federal budget we all know that our national debt is now over $26 trillion. The most obvious thing is that we could have not been taking on the same level of debt as we currently have. These conflicts are enormously expensive. I think there are plenty of reasonable people who will disagree on how wrong we were Afghanistan. But if you ask yourself which way should that pendulum swing, it’s certainly in the direction of drawing down.
Our friends on the left side of the aisle would probably argue that we could have shored up our transportation domestically or spent more on social programs. I guess a question for another time. But of course the other point is I make is that we could have not taken on the same level of debt that we’ve taken on, which some in the military have said is the biggest national security threat that we ultimately face in the medium to long term. I think one of the difficulties when you talk about these conflicts is that we don’t think about, as you are pointing out, is that we have limited resources as a society and we have to decide how to spend them.
There are a lot of other things we could have spent them on. think one of the biggest tragedies of it. It is beyond the sticker price and all of these costs that we’ve accrued. I think at this point it’s very much debatable whether or not that’s contributing to an improved national defense situation for the United States. There is also all of those other things that we may not have actually been able to spend money on as a result.
Bob Zadek: You made the legitimate important question about whether this is truly spending on defense. And you use the word “offense.” I go back to 1947 or thereabouts when the defense department was reorganized. It was called historically “the Department of War.” In 1947, the name and hopefully the mission of that cabinet department was changed from the department of war to the department of defense.
One would have liked if not only was the name changed, but the mission was changed as well. If you are true to the name, you have to test every military expenditure based upon whether it is truly for defense or for something else, whether it be nation building or whatever else. I ask our listeners to just imagine that if the in Afghanistan or stopped today, whether or not we would feel any less safe, whether our defense capabilities would be harmed in any way, bearing in mind that the few scattered, isolated, insignificant terrorist events that have happened in our country are statistically non-existent in terms of cost of life and treasure. The combined effect of all the terrorism acts is nonexistent statistically. Is that a fair statement?
Jonathan Bydlak: I think that is true certainly at the current time, right? The mission in Afghanistan clearly changed and this is a critique that’s been levied from all across the political spectrum.
We may have been able to justify a certain level of spending. But this is America’s longest conflict throughout our entire history. That just seems so counterintuitive given the gravity of many of these historical conflicts. At the end of the day, the strategy should drive the dollars not the other way around. The problem that we have is that the strategy has basically become what it is in many areas of government, which is just to continue doing things because that’s how we’ve done things before.
Ronald Reagan said that there was nothing more permanent than a temporary government program.
And I think you can make a very strong case that Afghanistan has essentially become a permanent government program, which in its initial stages was intended to be temporary.
𝐁𝐨𝐛 𝐙𝐚𝐝𝐞𝐤: War in the traditional way was war against a defined government. It ends. One side says, “get out the folding table, let’s sign the treaty.” It has a clear end to it.
When you have a war on terror — a war on a concept, when does it ever end?
Who will sign the treaty?
Does it not end until the last terrorist is dead?
“There was one terrorist living in a cave — he just died. War over.”
Is that how it ends? And if not that, then how? Therefore, the only way it can end is when a President or Congress declares it to end. We created a war out of whole cloth. We can end it the way we started it — simply by declaring it.
The President who declares the war over will end up on Mt. Rushmore because he is the first one to say, “Okay, I woke up in the morning and I realized it makes no sense.”
This is a war that has to end politically. It can’t end on the battlefield. There is no battlefield. It can’t end when the other side surrenders. There is no body to surrender.
Is there any other solution than the war ending in the District of Columbia, not Afghanistan?
Jonathan Bydlak: I would argue it’s both. The US envoys are currently negotiating a peace settlement in Afghanistan. That makes sense. I certainly don’t subscribe to the “you broke it you buy it defense,” but I think we should try to leave the situation in as good a situation as possible — but does that mean that if you can’t leave it in a perfect situation, you can’t leave at all?
I would argue no, it’s not the United States’ obligation. As phenomenal as the military is, people don’t join the military to build nations. They join the military to protect the people of the United States.
I think it’s important to look for as much of a solution that’s as good and positive as we possible can but that shouldn’t be the only thing necessary. The reality is that things will never be perfect and we will never leave.
Vietnam is the operative example. It was a hard-fought conflict and the outcome was not what we wanted to see, but we left regardless, and if you look at the relations between the U.S. and Vietnam now some 40 years later, we trade, their economy is doing well, and they are in a much different situation than if we had stayed 45 years still with troops on the ground.
There are differences in Afghanistan that may prevent that outcome, but it’s instructive to realize that the idea that we can only spread our ideas at the point of a gun is very flawed.
We end up having better outcomes exercising soft power. The Afghanis are much better off if we let them go at it alone.
Bob Zadek: You made reference to the Afghani people. Frankly Jonathan, I don’t really care that much about the Afghani people. What’s best for the Afghani people is not relevant. It’s what’s best for Americans. It is our money.
I would just ask our audience to remember that the memory of Presidents Johnson and Kennedy is tarnished by starting and prosecuting the war in Vietnam.
The memory of Richard Nixon (tarnished though it may be, obviously) has some bright spots — namely, that he ended the Vietnam War.
Nixon is not thought of the President who surrendered — who disgraced us. He is the President that ended the war.
So, President Trump or President whoever-is-next — you will be remembered favorably in history if all you do is end the wars in the Middle East.
Spending Tracker: A Congressional Report Card
Jonathan, you spend your time in Congress and have built a wonderful tool to help voters influence their elected officials, the spending tracker. Jonathan, tell us about the Spending Tracker.
Jonathan Bydlak: One thing I have learned is that there’s often a disconnect between what people see happening in Washington and who they think is to blame. I’ve had many conversations with people who say they don’t like this new legislation that passed or what have you, but my members of Congress isn’t the problem, it is everyone else’s member of Congress. I think a lot of times people don’t have clarity on what the record of their individual members are. So with spending tracker, we built a tool that essentially does just that. It simply takes all of the votes that your members of Congress are taking and it cross-references them with what the costs of all of that legislation is so that you can go in and you can see how each member of Congress has spent billions or trillions of dollars.
You can look at the itemized breakdown of what they were voting for and decide for yourself whether or not that’s a record that you support. In a way it creates a report card for members of Congress. But the important thing is that everyone has access to that information in a very transparent way. It is a very, very powerful tool because there’s nothing else like it that allows you to see the implications of these votes from the perspective of a fiscal standpoint.
Bob Zadek: How does the American public access spending tracker?
Jonathan Bydlak: The website is spendingtracker.org and if you go to that website you can basically just punch in your zip code or view the rankings if you like. If you type in your zip code, it’ll bring you right to your member of Congress or your senator if you like.
Government Spending & Budget Transparency Reporting | Spending Tracker
Members of Congress take countless votes every year, many of which add new spending. SpendingTracker.org automatically…
Bob Zadek: You spend your days in the halls of Congress interacting with members of the house and I suspect members of the Senate as well. How much actual discretion does an individual member of the house have? I have discussed the dysfunctional nature of the structure of the House of Representatives and the Senate. On the ground, assuming you have a tight fisted, cheap son of a gun who doesn’t want to spend money, how much can that individual member of the Congress actually affect legislation?
Jonathan Bydlak: That’s an interesting question. Ultimately every Congressman is free to vote however they wish. Some members take a principled vote on every single bill that comes up before them. But of course many do not. And I think that your original question was how much power really does every individual member of Congress have? The answer is actually not as much as you might think. At a basic level, any one Congressman is only one out of 435 in the house and each Senator is only one out of a hundred in the Senate. By virtue of that, their power is somewhat limited.
The other component here is the power dynamic that exists between the party infrastructure and the committee infrastructure. Oftentimes the party that is in power wants to put people in positions in powerful committees that are going to ultimately vote and shepherd through legislation to their liking. So they look for uniformity. They look for people who you know, aren’t necessarily going to go and always take the most principled votes. I don’t mean to say that this is true of every member of Congress. I’m painting in broad strokes, but I think that there’s definitely an incentive structure in place where members are ultimately encouraged not to always vote their conscience, but to ultimately vote for those things that, that party leadership wants.
Why does party leadership wants certain things? Well, there are certain interests on each side of the aisle that lobby for a certain perspective. Because the government does so much, we have so many people who go to Washington to lobby because if you don’t, you’re basically left behind. All of that is to say that the ability of any individual member to really radically change the system is actually much more limited than a lot of the public is led to believe.
The Reasons for a Dysfunctional Congress
Bob Zadek: Since we have so many safe seats in the House as a result of gerrymandering, only about two or three percent across the board in the house seats are really competitive seats, that means that all of the battles are at the primary, not in the general election, because the general elections of the race is predictable, but not in the primaries. In the primaries I don’t recall ever seeing a primary battle on either party where it was a free spender versus a more parsimonious candidate for office. It doesn’t seem to be an issue that gets congressmen elected. If they get elected it doesn’t seem to be a position that allows them to rise up in the party infrastructure. Is that a fair observation?
Jonathan Bydlak: Partially. Oftentimes it is a difficult issue to help you rise within the party infrastructure. The reason is that you benefit by delivering the goods not just to your voters, but also to your donors and other interests who have an interest in what the government is doing. I paint here in broad strokes and I hesitate to do that too much because I think there are members who do generally vote their conscience, but that is definitely a phenomenon that exists. In the primary side of things, there definitely have been many races.
During the Tea Party wave, regardless of your listeners particular feelings about the tea party, there was definitely a strong component of the population that was increasingly concerned about the national debt. They were concerned about growth in government and growth in spending. I do think there have been a lot of races where that has been a factor. If you think about Rand Paul for example, in Kentucky, when, when he first ran for the Senate in 2010, he sort of rode the coattails of the Tea Party wave. One of the major distinguishing characteristics between Senator Paul and his opponent at the time was views on growth of government.
I think one of the challenges that a lot of members have is that for those who do actually care about this issue, it is oftentimes hard to distinguish yourself because everybody pays lip service even if they don’t actually follow through. That of course is a big part of the motivating factor behind spending tracker because it allows you to sort of see who walks the walk and doesn’t just talk the talk. But historically that’s been one of the challenges.
Bob Zadek: In other words it is up to the voters to indicate that one of the criteria we use in voting in primaries or in general is the policy on spending. Jonathan, when you encourage members of Congress to pay attention to spending, what has been their receptivity to your message? What has been their response?
Jonathan Bydlak: That is a great question. I actually saw some polling data recently that was about Republican voters and if you can believe it, the issue that actually polled the highest right now among Republican voters was the issue of reducing spending. On the Republican side there is a lot of concern about the increases in the national debt. There’s a lot of concern about growth in government and that consistently is the issue with the highest level of support. It doesn’t always necessarily evoke the most passion compared to maybe some other hot button issues.
I think most members of Congress, however, want to do the right thing, but there are a number of problems. One is that the government does so much today that it’s very difficult for every member of Congress to be an expert in every little thing that the government does. There may be certain members who come from an agricultural background and so they understand those issues instinctively. There may be some who served in the military and so they’re more inclined to understand the nuances that are happening in Afghanistan or other parts of the world.
But it is pretty much impossible to be for any one person could be an expert in all of these issues. I always joke that we focus on the one issue of spending but spending touches everything. So really we’re in every issue group. That is a big part of the challenge. As a consequence of that, a lot of members feel compelled to rely on shortcuts, which is what does the party leadership tell me to do? Or what do I think is most expedient for me to do? Not necessarily what the most prudent decision is.
That is what I see the most with, with members.It is very difficult to be an expert on all of these issues. A lot of times I think that those who are outside of DC think that members are taking bad votes for nefarious reasons. But a lot of times it is just born out ignorance because it is not really possible to know about all of the things that they’re voting on and certainly not in necessarily in the timeframe that they have to review legislation. That is the biggest challenge and that is why it is important for citizens to talk to and educate their own elected officials, not just groups like mine.
Bob Zadek: Every lobbying group has their issue that they press very hard for. Farmers are very unlikely to vote against farm subsidies. I think back to a very interesting piece of federal legislation. It was called “the base closure act” and the environment for the “base closure act” was that our country reached a point where we had too many bases that were underutilized and very expensive besides occupying a lot of land. Every Congressman loved the bases in their district and they would never vote to close their post office or their military base.
In recognition of their own frailty and political inability to close military bases enacted an effective piece of legislation called the base closure act where they appointed an independent commission so nobody in Congress could be yelled at which would recommend bases to be closed based upon objective criteria and a cost-benefit analysis. Congress would be given the list and they could vote up or down on the whole list. The base closure commission did their work objectively and Congress voted for the recommendations and the bases were closed. With certain issues it is naive to expect Congress to act against their own self-interest, so you appoint an independent commission.
Also, remember when Obama and the Hill couldn’t reach agreement on spending? Rather than close down the government, they cut back all federal spending across the board by the same percentage.
That was the only time in our history that the budget deficit went down and it was done arbitrarily, across the board. Jonathan, that to me is the only way to reduce spending and without having a member of Congress feel they are getting yelled at by their particular district or pressure group. Will anything like that work? Is it being discussed? And if that doesn’t work, what are your opinions?
Jonathan Bydlak: I think the way of summarizing that is that the rules matter. The rules in which members of Congress operate are very important. I think that both both sides make a mistake where they assume that if we just select a couple of better people, it’s going to change things. The reality is that members of Congress are political creatures. They operate within a certain infrastructure. The balanced budget amendment conceptually makes a lot of sense. But the devil is in the details with how it would work effectively.
There are examples, the State of Colorado for example passed the “taxpayer bill of rights,” which has been the most effective tax and expenditure limitation that has been enacted. It would be fantastic if we had something like that at the federal level. There are unique challenges at the federal level because that would essentially have to be imposed by constitutional amendment, which many people are working on. That creates a very high bar. If you look at other countries like Switzerland and Sweden, they have very stringent expenditure limitation that restrict how much their government can spend.
- [REPORT] Rethinking Afghanistan | Strong America — Institute for Spending Reform
- [VIDEO] Milton Friedman — “To spend is to tax.”
- Afghanistan: A Way Out? Forbes — by Bydlak’s colleague William Hartung
- Cheap Hawks; Not Cheap Talk , with Jonatahn Bydlak, March 22, 2018
- Rethinking Pax Americana with John Glaser, Ivan Eland, Sept. 3, 2017
- Who Cares About Taxes Jonathan Bydlak, July 28, 2018
- 16 Years Later — the Forever War Rages On, John Glaser, Oct. 1, 2017
- The Return of Big Spending Republicans?, Ivan Eland, January 22, 2017