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The U.S. could potentially see savings of up to $50 billion by pulling troops out of Afghanistan
But that number doesn’t account for costs of bringing troops home -- including health services for veterans, or aid sent to Afghanistan in place of troops
The number also doesn’t account for spending on bringing home equipment, ending contracts with local entities or the cost of counterterrorism infrastructure, which is likely to cost more than the U.S. is currently spending per year
After nearly 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan, the United States has pledged to withdraw its forces from the country.
President Joe Biden announced a plan to have all U.S. troops out of the country by Sept. 11, 2021, but an accelerated pace of withdrawal could have troops completely out of the country by mid-July, according to a May 25, 2021 report from the New York Times.
As America’s longest war draws to a close, arguments have sprung up over what to do with the money the country is currently spending on the conflict -- and how much will actually be saved by pulling troops out of the unstable region.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, claimed that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan could save the country $50 billion a year in a May 21, 2021 tweet -- money he argues could be cut from the Pentagon budget and put towards something else, such as ending homelessness.
For the purpose of this fact check, we’re going to focus on the first part of his claim.
Can bringing home the troops in Afghanistan really save the country $50 billion?
In short, not as a practical matter.
When we reached out to Pocan’s office seeking backup, communications director Usamah Andrabi said that the $50 billion had been widely reported, and shared a link to a report by The Balance, a nonpartisan financial advice and news site, based in New York City.
The war started off in 2001, with 9,700 people on the ground in Afghanistan, at a cost of $23 billion, according to The Balance.
That number has grown since then, hitting $107 billion in spending in 2011, with more than 94,000 people on the ground. Since then, yearly spending has dropped as the number of troops stationed in the country has declined. In 2018, that number dropped to $52 billion in spending, and remained the same for 2019, according to an estimate by The Balance. Spending for 2020 was not yet available.
But even though the U.S. is currently spending about $50 billion a year on the war, that doesn’t mean that pulling troops out will amount to that same figure in savings.
Jonathan Bydlak, director of the Governance Program for the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization, said estimating cost savings from shifts in ground troops and other foreign policy decisions isn’t straightforward. There are three things that would need to be considered to reach an estimation of savings, he said:
The direct costs of engagement.
Changes in the base Department of Defense budget because of reduced engagement.
Ongoing/long-term costs, primarily veterans’ medical/disability benefits and interest.
Bydlak estimated the U.S. could see about $4 billion to $6 billion in direct savings, about $1 billion to $2 billion in base budget savings and about $28 billion to $42 billion in long-term costs. That puts total savings somewhere between $33 billion and $50 billion a year.
So, Pocan’s claim is on the very high end of that range.
But that savings could shrink if Biden opts to only withdraw a portion of the troops currently on the ground, leaving a small residual force. In that case, savings would only be about $7 billion to $10 billion.
There are also other costs that could crop up, too, Bydlak said: If the U.S. decides to provide more aid to Afghanistan, to help encourage stability; if more money is spent by the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of withdrawal; or if the domestic cost of housing troops is greater than the cost of stationing them in Afghanistan, due to a higher cost of living.
Others worry that any savings for the U.S. could be eaten up -- at least in the short term -- by the cost of pulling troops and supplies out of Afghanistan.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning public policy think tank, said in an April 26, 2021 report that spending in Afghanistan will still remain high without boots on the ground due to ongoing investments in counterterrorism and salaries and other expenses for the 3,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces.
Among other potential costs Eaglen included in her report: Breaking contracts with private entities for property, buildings and equipment and bringing home the equipment the U.S. brought with its troops.
"It will require more forces than are in the country now," the article said.
Bringing troops home isn’t an end to the mission that started in 2001 in Afghanistan, it’s a mission change, Eaglen wrote.
"If Congress is expecting a windfall of savings to result from the Afghanistan withdrawal, it is likely to be disappointed," Eaglen wrote. "Threats will still need to be managed -- just from slightly farther away. In the meantime, it will discover that leaving is hard, dangerous, and expensive."
Pocan claimed in a tweet that the country could save $50 billion a year by pulling troops out of Afghanistan.
The U.S. could save up to $50 billion, or as little as $7 billion on withdrawing troops, according to one expert. But that just covers one side of the ledger.
There are many other potential costs that must be accounted for, such as the possibility of a small residual force left on the ground in Afghanistan, mental and physical health care for veterans returning home, or even the higher cost of housing active troops as they return to the states.
One expert suggests that leaving Afghanistan, at least in the short term, will likely cost the U.S. more than it saves, because of the need to continue funding counterterrorism infrastructure, end contracts with local entities and pay for removing equipment from the landlocked country.
Our definition of Mostly False is a statement "contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression."
That fits here.
New York Times, "Pentagon accelerates withdrawal from Afghanistan," May 27, 2021
Twitter, Mark Pocan on withdrawing troops, May 21, 2021
Email conversation with Usamah Andrabi, communications director for U.S. Rep. Pocan, May 26, 2021
The Balance, "Afghanistan War Cost, Timeline and Economic Impact," Feb. 23, 2021
Email with Jonathan Bydlak, the director of the Governance Program for the R Street Institute, June 1, 2021
Email conversation with Hallie Coyne, Research assistant to Mackenzie Eaglen, June 1, 2021
Mackenzie Eaglen, "Leaving Afghanistan will be more expensive than anyone expects," April 26, 2021
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