In Afghanistan, Success Worth Paying For

America’s political debate has turned to government spending, debt and the country’s long-term economic health. Many rightly view the military budget as an important ingredient in any deficit-reduction plan. But some have extended this logic to the war in Afghanistan, with even administration insiders telling The Post that spending has gone too high and that costs will influence President Obama’s decision about how quickly to start withdrawing troops next month. Their ranks are bolstered by outside strategists who argue that spending so much on distant, poor Afghanistan leaves us unable to invest properly in other areas.

This is an understandable but incorrect way of viewing the Afghan war. Regardless of Obama’s choices this summer, total costs of the war will exceed half a trillion dollars. Those favoring a more rapid drawdown than do most field commanders would be able to save at most 15 percent in total costs, while jeopardizing the campaign’s future. Losing the war could give al-Qaeda its largest sanctuary — an undesirable development even after the demise of Osama bin Laden — and also provide sanctuaries for groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar i-Taiba. Moreover, we tried fighting this war on the cheap, from 2002 to 2005, and the result was a revival of the insurgency.

True, the war’s course has been extremely difficult. Many news reports focus on suicide bombings or government corruption. Even relative success, defined as a future Afghan government that can control most of its territory with little outside help, is not guaranteed. But evidence is mounting that our military strategy is working — and rapid troop drawdowns this summer and fall are not consistent with the plan.

That plan, in a nutshell: In 2011, consolidate increasingly secure areas in Afghanistan’s south while fending off an expected Taliban counteroffensive that, while likely to be hamstrung by the NATO/Afghan government progress of the past year, could still be potent. Assassination campaigns and spectacular bombings can be expected to pose particular threats even if overall battlefield dynamics are turning the way of coalition forces from Kabul to Kandahar to Helmand. In 2012, increasingly turn over responsibilities for security in the south to rapidly improving Afghan army and police forces while bolstering U.S. efforts in the east. In 2013 and 2014, accelerate foreign troop drawdowns as Afghan forces reach full capability and as the insurgency has been considerably weakened. Throughout all this, continue work on Afghan economic development and government capacity while supporting President Hamid Karzai’s efforts at realistic peace talks with the Afghan insurgency.

The strategy has weak points, especially at the political level. Washington is having a hard time motivating Pakistan to go after insurgent sanctuaries on its soil, and we lack an adequate plan for supporting Afghan political development as the country moves toward presidential elections in 2014. But the military effort increasingly shows results. In the country’s south, for instance, at least 10 percent more Afghans consider roads secure than did a year ago; most government officials in the south now travel by road rather than NATO helicopter; the number of schools open in Helmand province has increased by 50 percent since late 2009; Afghan army and police contributions to recent offensives in the south have been about half of all necessary coalition forces; and poppy production is down by half over the past three years.

To be sure, the war is not cheap. The Congressional Research Service puts U.S. costs through this summer at around $444 billion since 2001. That includes some $25 billion for Afghan security forces and $25 billion in economic development efforts. Current strategy implies another year (starting Oct. 1) of total American costs over $100 billion. It is realistic to expect that fiscal 2013 costs might be $75 billion and 2014 costs around $50 billion, as NATO prepares to hand off responsibility to the Afghan government nationwide and dramatically reduce its presence. More modest annual costs thereafter would still push the combined American investment over $700 billion, rivaling the prices of the wars in Korea and Iraq.

That’s a lot of money. But next to a national debt of $14 trillion, it hardly looks astronomical. And the costs look even more reasonable measured against the costs of defeat — defined as a Taliban takeover of at least southern Afghanistan; and associated sanctuaries for the world’s worst terrorist groups, which still want to strike American cities, gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and provoke another India-Pakistan war. Measured against the likely alternative costs, at this point the incremental cost of sustaining the current strategy to its logical conclusion is within reason. We’re already committed to spending $444 billion; no big savings are feasible this summer regardless of the president’s July decision. Even adopting a “counterterrorism plus” strategy similar to what the vice president purportedly favors would keep an average of perhaps 50,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the coming year, 30,000 the following year and 20,000 in the country thereafter, indefinitely. By the rule of thumb that keeping an American soldier in Afghanistan for a year costs about $1 million, the cumulative expenses approach $600 billion by 2016 or so.

If a war’s failure is inevitable, we must of course focus on the people and resources that could be saved by terminating a hopeless endeavor. But after a decade of learning by American strategists and policymakers, the Afghanistan campaign is on a much better track. While no sterling success seems likely, a reasonable outcome is probably within reach: preventing that country from again being the most dangerous terrorist sanctuary on Earth, if we stay patient over the next two to three years and carry out troop drawdowns gradually.