President Obama will talk about troop numbers in Afghanistan when he makes a prime-time speech from the White House on Wednesday night. But behind his words will be an acute awareness of what $1.3 trillion in spending on two wars in the past decade has meant at home: a ballooning budget deficit and a soaring national debt at a time when the economy is still struggling to get back on its feet.
As Mr. Obama begins trying to untangle the country from its military and civilian promises in Afghanistan, his critics and allies alike are drawing a direct line between what is not being spent to bolster the sagging economy in America to what is being spent in Afghanistan — $120 billion this year alone.
On Monday, the United States Conference of Mayors made that connection explicitly, saying that American taxes should be paying for bridges in Baltimore and Kansas City, not in Baghdad and Kandahar.
The mayors’ group approved a resolution calling for an early end to the American military role in Afghanistan and Iraq, asking Congress to redirect the billions now being spent on war and reconstruction costs toward urgent domestic needs. The resolution, which noted that local governments cut 28,000 jobs in May alone, was the group’s first venture into foreign policy since it passed a resolution four decades ago calling for an end to the Vietnam War.
And in a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said: “We can no longer, in good conscience, cut services and programs at home, raise taxes or — and this is very important — lift the debt ceiling in order to fund nation-building in Afghanistan. The question the president faces — we all face — is quite simple: Will we choose to rebuild America or Afghanistan? In light of our nation’s fiscal peril, we cannot do both.”
Demonstrators describing themselves as “angry jobless citizens” said they would picket the Capitol on Wednesday to urge members of Congress to use any savings from Mr. Obama’s troop reductions to create more jobs. The group sponsoring the demonstration, the Prayer Without Ceasing Party, said in a statement on Tuesday that it was “urging the masses to call their congressmen and the president to ensure that jobs receive a top priority when the troops start returning to America.”
Spending on the war in Afghanistan has skyrocketed since Mr. Obama took office, to $118.6 billion in 2011. It was $14.7 billion in 2003, when President George W. Bush turned his attention and American resources to the war in Iraq.
The increase is easy to explain. When Mr. Obama took office, he vowed to aggressively pursue what he termed America’s “war of necessity” (Afghanistan) and to withdraw from America’s “war of choice” (Iraq). He has done so; the lines on Iraq and Afghanistan war spending crossed in 2010, when the United States spent $93.8 billion in Afghanistan versus $71.3 billion in Iraq, according to the Congressional Research Service.
But the White House is keenly aware that the president is heading into a re-election campaign; with the country’s jobless rate remaining high, topping 9 percent, his poll numbers on his handling of the domestic economy have plummeted.
“Do we really need to be spending $120 billion in a country with a G.D.P. that’s one-sixth that size?” asked Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, a policy group with close ties to the Obama administration. “Most Americans would be shocked to know that we’re spending that kind of money for jobs programs for former Taliban, and would wonder where are our jobs programs for Detroit and Cleveland?”
In 2010, Congress — at the Obama administration’s request — set aside $100 million to support programs in Afghanistan aimed at moving former insurgents off the battlefields and into the country’s mainstream economy. Those efforts — similar to what the Bush administration did in Iraq — have yet to bear much fruit; the 1,700 fighters who have enrolled in the reintegration program represent only a fraction of the estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Taliban insurgents, The New York Times reported Monday.
Most American aid bypasses the Afghan government and goes to international companies, a practice that, according to a June 8 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, can undercut the Afghan government and lead to redundant and unsustainable donor projects. But Obama administration officials complain that the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai has, thus far, been unwilling to tackle corruption in any meaningful way, making it hard to argue that it should get more money directly.
In Washington, the argument over whether the United States should be building bridges in Kandahar or Cleveland is bound to grow even louder as the 2012 election campaign heats up.
After Senator Manchin made his speech on Tuesday calling for an end to nation-building in Afghanistan, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, took to the floor to rebuke him, calling Mr. Manchin’s remarks characteristic of the “isolationist-withdrawal-lack-of-knowledge-of-history attitude that seems to be on the rise.”
But in Mr. McCain’s own Republican Party, which has historically been more supportive of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than Democrats, there is clearly some queasiness about war spending during a period of economic distress.
Four years ago, Representative Ron Paul of Texas was the only Republican presidential candidate raising concerns about the costs of the Afghanistan or Iraq wars. But last week, Mr. Paul was joined explicitly by another contender, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah and the Obama administration’s former ambassador to China, who said that the cost of a continued military presence was a leading factor in his belief that a major troop drawdown should begin in Afghanistan.
“Very expensive boots on the ground may be something that is not critical for our national security needs,” Mr. Huntsman said.
Even when Mr. Obama does withdraw the bulk of troops from Afghanistan, Americans will still be footing the bill for years, argued William R. Keylor, an international relations professor at Boston University.
“The total cost of the war, the longest in American history and one that was paid for by borrowing rather than by increased taxation, should not be measured solely by the costs of financing the troops and the extensive aid programs administered by the State Department,” Mr. Keylor said. “It should also include long-term costs of the war, primarily veterans’ benefits for the returning soldiers, who will require medical and mental health services for many years to come. Long after the last troops depart from the country, that hidden part of the bill will come due.”