By Frida Berrigan
What is a trillion? It is a big number for sure. The best explanation I have found for this mind-blowing figure is from children's book author David Schwartz. "One million seconds comes out to be about 11ฝ days. A billion seconds is 32 years. And a trillion seconds is 32,000 years."
What is a trillion dollars? What can you get for that much money?
Rethink Afghanistan, Robert Greenwald's effort to help us understand the war on terror, its costs, and consequences, has a new Facebook application aimed at breaking down exactly how much we can get for one trillion dollars.
It is fun (in a qualified, worldwide web, war on terror sort of way), and eye-opening. During one round of the game, we were able to spend US$999.5 billion to:
... And have $516.5 million left over (way more than enough to pay off my college loans).
A trillion dollars is also what the United States has spent since 2001 on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, it is being estimated that another $800 billion plus will be added to the tab before the wars are ended.
No peace dividend
If you're looking forward to a peace dividend as US forces withdraw from Iraq, you're going to have to wait a while. As the costs of the Iraq war have been going down, the costs of the war in Afghanistan have been rising. The financial costs, the numbers of troops, and the number of casualties in Afghanistan are all getting larger. This fiscal year (FY 2010), for the first time, more money is being allocated to Afghanistan than to Iraq.
Since 2003, military operations in Iraq have absorbed the bulk of war funding - three or four times as much money as Afghanistan. But that gap dropped precipitously in 2009.
Now, in 2010, we will spend 10% more in Afghanistan than in Iraq, and the spending difference will be even more once the $33 billion supplemental funding to pay for the Afghanistan troop surge is factored in on top of the $72.9 billion allocated up front. And for 2011, the administration is requesting $110.3 billion for military operations in Afghanistan and $43.4 billion for ongoing military operations in Iraq.
Another way to think about the costs of war is per person - how much does it cost to deploy each individual member of the military. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment asserts that "the annual cost per troop since FY 2005 has averaged $1.186 million in Afghanistan and $0.685 million in Iraq, in constant-year FY 2011 dollars." That's another reason why, as the war in Iraq winds down - at whatever rate - the savings are most likely going to be eaten up by the rising costs of military operations in Afghanistan.
Another way to think about the costs of war is in hours, minutes and seconds. Laicie Olsen of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has done the math: "In 2010, the troop increase in Afghanistan will cost $2.5 billion per month, $82 million per day, $3.4 million per hour, $57,000 per minute, and $951 per second." And that's just for the $33 billion troop surge, not the $171 billion we're spending on the two wars.
In short, if we want a peace dividend, we're going to have to find a way to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
There's new evidence to suggest that the current billions being thrown at Afghanistan are not particularly effective. A recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction criticizes the way the Pentagon has been evaluating progress in training the Afghan military. Most tellingly, the report suggests that after $27 billion spent on training Afghan security forces, even the best-trained units are still unable to operate independently (that is, they need support from US troops to operate in combat zones). According to the New York Times account of the report, it also "details drug abuse, heavy attrition, corruption and illiteracy among the Afghan security forces".
As for US economic aid to Afghanistan, similar problems have been identified. In response to an investigation by the Washington Post indicating that Afghan officials have systematically blocked corruption investigations of politically-connected individuals, Representative Nita Lowey (Democrat, New York) has threatened to block a new round of $3.9 billion in aid until she "has confidence that US taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords, and terrorists."
So, the costs of war and the costs of preparing for war continue to soar, even in the midst of protracted economic recession and deep anxiety about the future. New ideas and new perspectives are needed to rebalance a deeply dysfunctional system.
In the mean time, the Pentagon's base budget, not counting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to increase. Of the over $700 billion in military spending in 2011, roughly $550 billion is for the "regular" Pentagon budget.
In short, base Pentagon spending is over three times as much as what is being spent on the wars. Therefore, there is ample room to cut the Pentagon's base budget even if the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq stay at their current high levels.
A new report shows just how that might be done. "Debt, Deficits and Defense: A Way Forward" was produced by the Sustainable Defense Task Force  and illustrates how the Pentagon can contribute significantly to deficit reduction while advancing national security goals.
The report presents options for reducing the Pentagon's budget - in sum saving nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. Suggested cuts include:
And the list goes on.
"A Way Forward" is not the only set of good ideas on how to reduce military spending. But - taking another look at the list of things we could buy for one trillion dollars if we were not spending it on wars abroad - it is a good place to start this long over due work.