The sum of US$57,077.60. That's what the United States is paying per minute.
Keep that in mind - just for a minute or so.
After all, the surge is already on. By the end of December, the first 1,500 of
30,000 additional US troops will have landed in Afghanistan, a nation roughly
the size of Texas, ranked by the United Nations as second-worst in the world in
terms of human development.
Women and men from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will be among the first to
head out. It takes an estimated $1 million to send each of them surging into
Afghanistan for one year. So a 30,000-person surge will be at least $30
billion, which brings us to
that $57,077.60. That's how much it will cost the US taxpayer, for one minute
of that surge.
By the way, add up the yearly salary of one US Marine Corps soldier from Camp
Lejeune with four years of service, throw in his or her housing allowance,
additional pay for dependents, and bonus pay for hazardous duty, imminent
danger, and family separation, and you'll still be many thousands of dollars
short of that single minute's sum.
But perhaps this isn't a time to quibble. After all, a job is a job, especially
in the United States, which has lost seven million jobs since December 2007,
while reporting record-high numbers of people seeking assistance to feed
themselves and/or their families. According to the US Department of
Agriculture, 36 million Americans, including one out of every four children,
are currently on food stamps.
On the other hand, given the woeful inadequacy of that "safety net", we might
have chosen to direct the $30 billion in surge expenditures toward raising the
average individual monthly Food Stamp allotment by $70 for the next year;
that's roughly an additional trip to the grocery store, every month, for 36
million people. Alternatively, we could have dedicated that $30 billion to
job-creation. According to a recent report issued by the Political Economy
Research Institute, that sum could generate a whopping 537,810 construction
jobs, 541,080 positions in healthcare, fund 742,740 teachers or employ 831,390
mass transit workers.
For purposes of comparison, $30 billion - remember, just the Pentagon-estimated
cost of a 30,000-person troop surge - is equal to 80% of the total US 2010
budget for international affairs, which includes monies for development and
humanitarian assistance. On the domestic front, $30 billion could double the
funding (at 2010 levels) for the Children's Health Insurance Program and the
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Or think of the surge this way: if the US decided to send just 29,900 extra
soldiers to Afghanistan, 100 short of the present official total, it could
double the amount of money - $100 million - it has allocated to assist refugees
and returnees from Afghanistan through the State Department's Bureau of
Population, Refugees and Migration.
Leaving aside the fact that the US already accounts for 45% of total global
military spending, the $30 billion surge cost alone would place us in the top
10 for global military spending, sandwiched between Italy and Saudi Arabia.
Spent instead on "soft security" measures within Afghanistan, $30 billion could
easily build, furnish and equip enough schools for the entire nation.
Continuing this nod to the absurd for just one more moment, if you received a
silver dollar every second, it would take you 960 years to haul in that $30
billion. Not that anyone could hold so much money. Together, the coins would
weigh nearly 120,000 tons, or more than the poundage of 21,000 Asian elephants,
an aircraft carrier, or the Washington Monument. Converted to dollar bills and
laid end-to-end, $30 billion would reach 2.9 million miles (4.7 million
kilometers) or 120 times around the Earth.
One more thing, that $30 billion isn't even the real cost of President Barack
Obama's surge. It's just a minimum, through-the-basement estimate. If you were
to throw in all the bases being built, private contractors hired, extra
civilians sent in, and the staggering costs of training a larger Afghan army
and police force (a key goal of the surge), the figure would surely be
In fact, total Afghanistan war spending for 2010 is now expected to exceed
$102.9 billion, doubling last year's spending. Thought of another way, it
breaks down to $12 million per hour in taxpayer dollars for one year. That's
equal to total annual US spending on all veteran's benefits, from hospital
stays to education.
In Afghan terms, the US's upcoming single year of war costs represents nearly
five times that country's gross domestic product, or $3,623.70 for every Afghan
woman, man and child. Given that the average annual salary for an Afghan
soldier is $2,880 and many Afghans seek employment in the military purely out
of economic desperation, this might be a wise investment - especially since the
Taliban are able to pay considerably more for their new recruits. In fact,
recent increases in much-needed Afghan recruits appear to correlate with the
promise of a pay raise.
All of this is, so much fantasy, since we know just where that $30-plus billion
will be going. In 2010, total Afghanistan war spending since November 2001 will
exceed $325 billion, which equals the combined annual military spending of
Great Britain, China, France, Japan, Germany, Russia and Saudi Arabia. If we
had never launched an invasion of Afghanistan or stayed on fighting all these
years, those war costs, evenly distributed in this country, would have meant a
$2,298.80 dividend per US taxpayer.
Even as we calculate the annual cost of war, the tens of thousands of Asian
elephants in the room are all pointing to $1 trillion in total war costs for
Iraq and Afghanistan. The current escalation in Afghanistan coincides with that
rapidly approaching milestone. In fact, thanks to Peter Baker's recent New York
Times report on the presidential deliberations that led to the surge
announcement, we know that the trillion-dollar number for both wars may be a
gross underestimate. The Office of Management and Budget sent Obama a memo,
Baker tells us, suggesting that adding General Stanley McChrystal's surge to
ongoing war costs, over the next 10 years, could mean - forget Iraq - a
trillion dollar Afghan war.
At just under one-third of the 2010 US federal budget, $1 trillion essentially
defies per-hour-per-soldier calculations. It dwarfs all other nations' military
spending, let alone their spending on war. It makes a mockery of food stamps
and schools. To make sense of this cost, we need to leave civilian life behind
entirely and turn to another war. We have to reach back to the Vietnam War,
which in today's dollars cost $709.9 billion - or $300 billion less than the
total cost of the two wars the US is still fighting, with no end in sight, or
even $300 billion less than the long war that may yet be fought in Afghanistan.
Jo Comerford is the executive director of the National Priorities
Project. Previously, she served as director of programs at the Food Bank of
Western Massachusetts and directed the American Friends Service Committee's
justice and peace-related community organizing efforts in western