During a night that generally lacked specific policy proposals, President Obama used a portion of his State of the Union address on Tuesday to outline his plan to bring more American troops home from Afghanistan:
"Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.
Beyond 2014, America's commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates."
The President's comments reflect his previous plans to remove most, if not all, combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. There remain about 66,000 U.S. troops in the region today, and public support for ending American presence there is high. What is less certain are the budgetary impacts that could stem from the President's proposals last night.
In a 2012 Capitol Hill hearing, Department of Defense Under Secretary Robert Hale told lawmakers that it costs about $850,000 per soldier per year to station one U.S. troop in Afghanistan. That figure suggests a potential $28.9 billion annual cost associated with keeping abroad the 34,000 troops that President Obama wants to withdraw.
Note that any savings incurred from bringing troops home wouldn't necessarily be equal to the entire cost of keeping them abroad. Although it is more expensive to station military forces overseas, there are still costs associated with maintaining a combat force here at home. The extent of these savings would be affected significantly by how Congress decides to act regarding impending sequestration cuts.
Of course, the fluid nature of overseas military operations also makes it difficult to arrive at a definite cost or savings estimate for such proposals. The President's budget for fiscal year 2013 requested $96.7 billion for "Overseas Contingency Operations." Beyond that, it called for $44.2 billion per year for fiscal years 2014-2022.
Ostensibly, some of this funding would go towards "training and equipping Afghan forces," as they assume responsibility for the country's security and American forces enter a non-combat support role. However, any budgetary changes associated with the President's long-term transition proposals will be contingent on the agreement that he is able to reach with Afghanistan's leadership, and how involved the U.S. military will be in its support.
We hope to see a detailed budget proposal from the President in order to assess more completely how this accelerated withdrawal strategy will affect federal spending.