The economics of the Afghanistan troop drawdown

U.S. soldiers from Viper Company (Bravo), 1-26 Infantry walk during a patrol at Combat Outpost (COP) Sabari in Khost province in the east of Afghanistan.

Kai Ryssdal: The president's speech on Afghanistan this evening is in theory a foreign policy address. But only if you figure that it involves troops overseas. The real motivations behind what the president will say tonight are mostly economic. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale is here with a preview. Hey John.

John Dimsdale: Hello Kai.

Ryssdal: So what's the president going to tell us tonight?

Dimsdale: Well he's going to say that the 100,000 U.S. troops who are now in Afghanistan have achieved some significant successes and that's going to allow about 5,000 of them to come home by the end of this year. And the drawdown can continue into next year, adding up to about 33,000 by Election Day, which is the same size as the troop surge that President Obama ordered a year and a half ago.

Ryssdal: All right, so if we know how much the surge costs, then can we interpolate how much this might save us?

Dimsdale: We can, very generally. It costs $1.2 million to keep one soldier in Afghanistan for a year. Now you add that up, and it comes to about $12 billion in savings through next year, and that's pretty significant. But I talked to Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and he reminded me that there's going to be a lot of other lingering bills that will continue to come due.

Todd Harrison: In particular, I'm thinking of the costs of veterans benefits and services. Particularly soldiers who have been injured in the line of duty and are discharged from the military, they then qualify for veterans health care and those costs may not peak for another 30-40 years.

And also, you have to consider the costs of protecting some of those long-term construction projects that the U.S. has started in Afghanistan. And those costs are going to be necessary, even after all the troops have left in 2014.

Ryssdal: Yeah. I'm going to pull out a phrase now, John, from I guess of the Cold War, right? The 1990s, '91, '92 -- peace dividend. Are we going to see any of that?

Dimsdale: Right. Yeah, I remember that. We're not really. And that's going to disappoint mayors and local officials who have had their eye on war savings to build some infrastructure here at home. Instead of building schools and bridges in Kandahar, they ask, how about a little something for Kansas City? Given all of the hidden costs of this war, this drawdown isn't likely to mean a lot of job construction projects here. Besides, you could argue that all the money spent in both Iraq and Afghanistan was borrowed anyway, and any savings -- meager as they might be -- should be saved for deficit reduction.

Ryssdal: All right. John Dimsdale in Washington. The president speaks tonight at 8 o'clock, Washington time. John, thanks a lot.

Dimsdale: My pleasure.

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