President Obama Announces Path of Troop Drawdown in Afghanistan

President Obama announced yesterday the number of troops that would be remaining in Afghanistan beyond the end of the year. While these levels are not final until the Afghan government agrees, they show the most likely way forward for U.S. military involvement in the country. Compared to the current troop level of more than 30,000, the President would keep 10,000 troops in the country for 2015, with that being reduced by half by the end of 2015, and a further reduction to only maintain a normal embassy presence by the end of 2016.

From a budgetary perspective, this announcement is important in setting the path of future war spending. Following budget rules, CBO's baseline projects that war spending will grow indefinitely with inflation, although the situation may not be particularly likely. However, CBO also publishes an alternate scenario where levels for all overseas operations – not just combat troops in Afghanistan – are drawn down to 30,000 by 2017. The alternate scenario has $35 billion of annual funding through 2024. Note that CBO does not assign any specific number to the level of troops in just Afghanistan, but judging by differences in CBO's and the Pentagon's measures of troop levels, it seems that the President's drawdown would be slightly faster than CBO's. At the time of the surge in Afghanistan, White House and Pentagon officials pegged the cost of the surge at $500,000 to $1 million per troop, so there could be some savings.

Every major budget also calls for war spending to be reduced and eventually eliminated, leaving the capped base defense spending as the sole funder of the Pentagon and other related defense functions. Both the President's and House-passed budget would reduce war funding from $92 billion this year to $85 billion next year and $30 billion per year after that before eliminating funding entirely after 2021. The House Democrats' budget prescribed a much sharper drawdown, with war spending being eliminated after 2015. Although the Senate did not make or pass a budget this year, last year's Senate budget would have also eliminated war spending after 2015.

The graph below shows how war spending and troop levels have waxed and waned over the past decade and a half.

Clarifying future troop levels will also help lawmakers more accurately cap war spending. With declining commitments abroad and tight spending caps on base defense spending, the temptation exists for lawmakers to transfer base defense spending to war spending, something that is already being done in the Senate. Indeed, looking at the graph above, one can see flat funding between 2013 and 2014 even as troop levels fall significantly; granted, there are reasons why there would be a lag in the troop drawdown versus the funding drawdown, but presumably there should at least have been some decline in funding. With a more certain plan for troops in Afghanistan, lawmakers should be able to set caps for war spending that would accomodate those levels while preventing the gimmickry that has been used with the spending caps.

Of course, we will have to wait and see if this plan is approved; otherwise, all U.S. troops may have to exit the country by the end of the year. Lawmakers should be ready to adjust and make a fiscally responsible winddown of war spending.