The days of a massive American military presence in Afghanistan are over. Afghan forces might benefit from about 10,000 U.S. trainers and advisers, but otherwise, the country’s security is in their hands. Yet after more than a dozen years of American engagement, the situation is fragile in the extreme.
Talks between the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban are on hold with no date to restart. Military casualties are up 50 percent from last year. Nearly 5,000 civilians have died so far in 2015.
In this context, Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker offered his take on the results of billions of American taxpayer dollars invested in rebuilding the country. In an Aug. 4, 2015, cartoon, a bewildered Uncle Sam stands on top of a pipeline of aid to Afghanistan riven with cracks that spell the word "corruption." Superimposed is a box that says, "The U.S. has now spent more on reconstructing Afghanistan than was spent on the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Europe."
A reader asked us to verify that comparison.
In terms of inflation-adjusted dollars, the statement holds up. But, as we’ll explain, it falls short on two points.
The primary source of the claim
Wuerker pointed us to one of many news reports during 2014. In June that year, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released one of its regular updates for Congress. In a short section, it compared the two programs.
"Adjusted for inflation, U.S. appropriations for the reconstruction of Afghanistan exceed the funds committed to the Marshall Plan, the U.S. aid program that delivered billions of dollars between 1948 and 1952 to help 16 European countries recover in the aftermath of World War II," the report said.
The Inspector General analysts wrote that in inflation-adjusted dollars, the United States had spent $103 billion on the Marshall Plan and $109 billion on Afghanistan.
The investment of American dollars is a fair yardstick, but experts noted others.
Two very different programs
While both efforts aimed to rebuild war-torn nations, the most striking difference is the Marshall Plan spent no money on the European armed forces. In contrast, about 60 percent of the aid spent on Afghanistan went towards arming and training the military and police. In fact, the Inspector General’s report makes note of that distinction. By its tally, building the Afghan security forces absorbed nearly $62 billion of the total. (To clarify, the total for Afghanistan excludes the cost of American military operations.)
The Marshall Plan unfolded long ago, so a short summary is in order for those who might not know it well.
The Truman administration and Congress created the Marshall Plan to stabilize the economies of Western Europe. In the early part, the program delivered hard goods such as food, animal feed, fertilizer and fuel. Later, direct aid shifted to providing raw materials and production equipment.
Aid also came in the form of grants and loans. In the dollars of the time, spending reached $10.3 billion. About half was invested in power plants, roads, railroads and agriculture. Another portion went towards debt relief. There were loan guarantees to spur American firms to invest in Europe.
Charles Maier, a Harvard historian, is a leading authority on post-World War II Europe. Maier told us that making comparisons across a span of more than 50 years is "notoriously tricky." The circumstances on the ground in Europe in the later 1940s and Afghanistan today are fundamentally different, Maier said.
"The European countries — outside Greece — were really functioning administrative systems," Maier said. "Few of those societal infrastructures have been operative in Afghanistan. Also, when the aid was being provided, there was no fighting in the recipient countries, except for the civil war in Greece, 1946-49."
Maier also emphasized that while the inflation-adjusted dollars might put the Afghanistan price tag above that of the Marshall Plan, when compared to the size of the American economy at the time, the Marshall Plan represented a much heftier commitment than U.S. aid to Afghanistan.
U.S. GDP then and now
During the years of the Marshall Plan, the size of the U.S. economy was in the neighborhood of $310 billion (in dollars at that time). So, with total spending of $10.3 billion on European reconstruction, the Marshall Plan represented about 4.3 percent of average GDP.
Maier then contrasted that with the Afghanistan spending between 2002 and 2014. During those years, the economy averaged about $14.3 trillion. The money spent on Afghanistan represented about 0.75 percent of average GDP.
"That's about one-twentieth of the Marshall Plan burden," Maier said. "This seems a much more rational way of thinking about the burden the U.S. was bearing."
Seen through the lens of the strain on the American economy, the Marshall Plan required more effort than rebuilding Afghanistan.
Wuerker said that the United States has spent more for Afghanistan reconstruction than it did to rebuild Europe under the Marshall Plan. While the math behind the claim adds up, it's important to know that the reconstruction programs are not identical.
The Marshall Plan spent no funds on military projects, while about 60 percent of Afghanistan aid was spent on security. The Marshall Plan was entirely focused on economic investments, while the spending in Afghanistan has been weighted much more toward establishing a secure space in which economic growth can occur.
The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.