We Spend $1 Billion/Year Fighting Each al Qaeda Member in Afghanistan

Think Progress does the math on Panetta’s admission that there are just 100 al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, and discovers we’ve got 1,000 American troops in Afghanistan for each al Qaeda member.

The U.S. has committed nearly 100,000 troops to the mission in Afghanistan. ABC This Week host Jake Tapper asked CIA Director Leon Panetta how big is the al Qaeda threat that the soldiers are combating:

TAPPER: How many Al Qaeda, do you think, are in Afghanistan?

PANETTA: I think the estimate on the number of Al Qaeda is actually relatively small. I think at most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of Al Qaeda is in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The 100,000 U.S. forces that have been tasked to dismantle the 100 or so al Qaeda members — a ratio of 1000:1 — is complicated by the fact that we are also engaged in operations going after the Taliban leadership.

Now let me add to their math. Even Afghan war fans admit that it costs $1 million a year–on top of things like salary–to support a US service member in Afghanistan.

Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, says one useful way to break down these huge numbers is to look at how much it costs to send just one soldier to war.

“We are at a point where it’s unbelievably costing us close to a million dollars, in additional costs — above and beyond salaries and the equipment that’s already in the inventory — per soldier or Marine per year,” he says.

Fighting in Afghanistan means fighting in one of the most remote regions on Earth, and that plays a large role in the seemingly astronomical figure.

Dov Zakheim, a former chief financial officer for the Defense Department, says the $1 million price tag includes getting the soldier to Afghanistan, getting his equipment to Afghanistan, and moving the soldier around once in the country.

So 1,000 US troops per al Qaeda member, at a cost of $1 million each. That’s $1 billion a year we spend for each al Qaeda member to fight our war in Afghanistan.

This sort of adds a new twist to that old Einstein quip about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Because we’re doing the same thing over and over again–at a cost of $1 billion a year per nominal opponent–and expecting anything other than bankruptcy.

48 replies
  1. Ishmael says:

    Watching the Panetta interview, it was interesting that he stated that the primary justification (du jour) for the Afghan war is that the US must prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists – at the rate of $1 billion per AQ fighter, this might start becoming real money when you add Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan…..

    • emptywheel says:

      Well, we’re spending far less in those countries, since we’re doing just drone strikes and JSOC teams. Which begs the question why we don’t do the latter in Afghanistan.

      Or maybe it’s time we finally admitted this is about the nuclear powered Pakistan (that Dick CHeney fucked up)?

      • Phoenix Woman says:

        Shhhh! Can’t talk about that.

        Thing is, both India and Pakistan have had nukes for years now. If they haven’t nuked each other into glass parking lots by now, they never will. (The Indians didn’t find the Pakistani attack on their own Parliament a justification for nuking Pakistan. It’s hard to imagine what could be more of a justification than that.)

        Look at North Korea and Israel: They both get a lot more mileage over threatening to use their nukes than they would from actually using them. (Particularly as the first nuked nation to lob a nuke at a non-nuked nation this century would soon find cause to regret it.)

        • BoxTurtle says:

          India and Pakistan both currently have rational governments and both are aware that they have reached the point of Mutual Assured Destruction.

          However, if AQ were to gain control in Pakistan that equation would change. Nobody would consider AQ rational and India might well strike first before AQ could get control of the nukes.

          Boxturtle (India does not scare easily, that’s our only hope if that occurs)

          • Phoenix Woman says:

            The deal is that India is much bigger than Pakistan. Since it gave up on trying to flex its military muscles against the Chinese, it’s concentrated on beating up Pakistan — which it’s done three times, each quite conclusively.

            Even if Pakistan were to lob its entire arsenal at India, it would succeed in killing perhaps a few hundred million of the 1.5 billion people who live in India. India, on the other hand, has enough nukes to wipe out Pakistan twice over.

            • BoxTurtle says:

              I recall that 90% of India’s population lives close to one of their 10 largest cities. My bet is that both countries would be at less than 10% of their pre-war population one month after the button is pushed. Their economies would be unrecoverable. Any war would be a tie.

              Boxturtle (I hope we never find out if I’m right or you are)

              • Phoenix Woman says:

                The thing is that Pakistan would have to try and take out India’s ability to respond in kind. If it concentrated on taking out India’s known nuke launch sites, as opposed to hitting major population centers, they’d wind up sparing an extra few hundred million people, a good portion of whom be massing at the Control Line and swamping the Pakistani border guards as they made their way towards Islamabad. And that’s assuming that the Pakistanis actually did succeed in getting all of India’s launchable nukes, which is highly unlikely.

                Remember, India officially has 1.2 billion people (unofficially it’s likely closer to 1.5 billion), whereas Pakistan has 169 million. Pakistan can hurt India very badly, but India can — even if Pakistan strikes first — rub Pakistan off the map both with or without nukes. It’s in neither country’s best interests to have a nuclear exchange (not unless they think of it as a particularly perverse form of population control), but India is a lot more likely to survive one.

                • BoxTurtle says:

                  I’m assuming that neither country can manage to prevent the launch of the others nukes. And I’m assuming that both countries know that.

                  Some nukes would be used tacticly to take out enemy troop concertrations, but the majority would be directed at each others population centers.

                  Boxturtle (In a fairly short time, they’ll be reduced to throwing rocks at each other)

      • BoxTurtle says:

        I would rather save that admission until after 2012. ObamaLLP currently is simply not capable of dealing with that issue. We either need a new administration or more experience for this one.

        Boxturtle (It’s a problem that can’t be solved with deals or drones)

    • BoxTurtle says:

      Afgahnistan is not safe for terrorists anymore. So they’ve move to Pakistan. Or Yemen. Or Somalia. If we “protect” those areas, they’ll simply move again. Perhaps the GOP is hoping to squeeze the terrorists to Mexico and have an excuse to cut loose on that country of scary brown people.

      This not war, this is pest control. If you want to make the roaches go away, you have to clean the kitchen. Your neighbors have to clean their kitchen. And you have to keep it clean afterwards.

      Boxturtle (Wouldn’t it be cheaper for us to contract with the Mafia for some hit men?)
      In the case of terrorism, the Kitchen is Israel and Palistine.

        • BoxTurtle says:

          I prefer to deal with honest, reputable, well established firms.

          Boxturtle (Plus, the Dons are regular churchgoers)

          • fatster says:

            Well, well, seems like others been goin’ to church, too.

            Feds won’t charge Blackwater in Sudan sanctions case


        • hackworth1 says:

          The Obama Admin loves Xe Blackwater as much as Cheneyco did. Xe is still getting multi-billion dollar contracts. Panetta loves Xe too. They’re working directly for the CIA. Jeremy Scahill says that Eric Prince is moving to UAE.

          Like Cheney’s Halliburton, its a coincidence and a miracle that no other outfit can do what Prince’s Blackwater can do for the same price.

          Can we be any more “had” by the Military Industrial Complex than we are right now?

  2. barryeisler says:

    Afghanistan, the drug war, offshore drilling… there’s a mentality that focuses only on imagined benefits and is blind to real costs. Strangely, the people most in the grip of this form of denial call themselves “conservative.”

  3. Phoenix Woman says:

    You know, if we’d spent that money on secret payments to various Westernized political factions instead of on people wanting to “get their gun on” and drones killing hundreds at wedding parties, maybe we could have achieved the goal of catching OBL and making the Afghans more amenable to trading their lithium with us.

    But of course, the US doesn’t want a stable non-corrupt country because those sorts of countries are much harder for multinational corporations to rip off.

  4. BoxTurtle says:

    It would be cheaper to simply bribe every AQ member to go away. We could afford to buy them a martyrs heaven each!

    Boxturtle (No virgins, but we can provide Vegas pole dancers. They’re WAY better)

  5. Teddy Partridge says:

    Afghanistan is a very simple problem in the eyes of the COINtras: kill everyone who wants us to leave. Then, leave.

  6. fatster says:

    O/T but related:

    Spies told to reveal instructions which ‘turned blind eye to torture’

    “MI5 and MI6 have been ordered by a High Court judge to release secret guidelines which human rights groups claim instructed spies to turn a blind eye to the torture of British terror suspects abroad.
    “The guidelines will be released to six British former Guantanamo Bay detainees who are suing the Government for allegedly being complicit in their torture by the Americans.”


    • skdadl says:

      Yay. Man, I love the UK High Court. Slow as molasses in January, but at least they’re moving. They sound truly annoyed that anyone is using excuses like national security as CYA. If only that attitude were contagious.

      • fatster says:

        If only! At least this should have some “trickle-down” effect on US. Hope so.

        Stay safe, skdadl, today’s the last day (G20).

        • skdadl says:

          It has been quite the mess too — gosh, who could have predicted … ?

          If I’d gone in yesterday, I would have been stranded because the police keep turning the trains on and off. We figured that would happen. There are places I could stay, but I can’t abandon teh kittehs here. So I’m just following the liveblogging at the TStar and the Grope and Flail. Police cars on fire yesterday, group arrests this morning … Must go and check Amy too.

          They tell us the G20 leaders are here, but you’d never know from the media, and besides, in a real sense, they aren’t actually here. They are in an ugly fortress completely cut off from Toronto — there is no there there. Don’t let anyone tell you they’re in Toronto.

  7. freepatriot says:

    what does it profit a nation to gain the whole world if the nation loses it’s soul ???

    • Mary says:

      It may not profit the nation a lot, but the war profiteers actually end up in pretty good shape. :(

      @11 – that gives DARPA a reduced down, easily communicated, narrative – maybe not quite the one they were looking for, but still.

      @27 “The priority becomes “harvesting” government’s tax revenues, not in doing the job and only the job government needs doing.” So well put. Especilally in light of the link above to Obamaco dropping crim charges against Xe so Xe won’t miss the harvest.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It may not profit the nation a lot, but the war profiteers actually end up in pretty good shape. :(

        There’s the rub. It’s not a rational cost-benefit analysis from the perspective of the public purse and the public good. It is a cost-benefit analysis from the perspective of benefit to the private sector, the cost to the public be damned.

        • Mary says:

          Going a bit to 35 – you have a “go to” of security companies that are political and lobby and who benefit over the short and long haul by creation of more places where their services are necessary. And while they are “necessary” then they can get by with … anything, bc what do you do without them?

          And of course, they can participate in manipulating domestic politics to ensure their future use and “necessariness.”
          No one asks him why they can’t just get their security from the military and how outsourcing security – and torture – protects us.

  8. fatster says:

    Add a few more drops in that $1B/year Afghanistan bucket.

    Troubled Contractor Gets Afghanistan Security Deal

    “CIA Director Leon Panetta says the agency has hired Xe (zee) Services — the company once known as Blackwater — for a $100 million contract to provide security in Afghanistan.
    “He says Xe underbid others by $26 million and that a CIA review concludes that the contractor has cleaned up its act.”


    • BoxTurtle says:

      CIA review concludes that the contractor has cleaned up its act

      Fox watching chickens. Mouse guarding cheese.

      Boxturtle (bmaz explaining why EW’s liquer cabinet is always emptied when she travels)

    • Mary says:

      They could underbid by 26 mill bc of the networks they already have in place – the Taliban has outsourced bribe collection to Xe as well, so when Xe pays its bribes, it gets to keep a cut.

      Did the CIA use their Algerian Station chief to perform that investigation? Or the guys who looked at the Gul Rehman torture killing and decided that the CIA didn’t kill anyone with its torture?

      • fatster says:

        Oh, Mary, sad to say, I doubt your (darkly) humorous comment is that far off the mark. There is the possibility that the Minerals Management Service (the Interior Dept’s largely corporate-dominated and -operated office responsible for all things Oil) is but one manifestation of what has become of our government agencies. Very upsetting to contemplate how ingrained and wide-spread that model is. And the Supremes’ decision that corporations are “persons” just adds to the ugliness and urgency.

    • bigbrother says:

      The chain of command for national security is broken by privatizing military mission. They recruit military insiders who do not support the White House policies. Troubling.

      • fatster says:

        Jeremy Scahill said on Olberman a few days ago that 70% of the DOD personnel (of all types, including cooks, electricians, etc.) are private contractors.


  9. Mary says:

    Another part of the picture and a bit of a follow up to @3 is that once we’ve been there for years and have continued to have exec and congressional plans for being there for a long period of time, we begin to have increasingly complex and expensive costs related to changing course as well. You end up with a lot of jobs and capacities linked to war continuation. What happens to the capacities and jobs now devoted to war support as you disengage.

    Tieing back to your next-recent post, you also have all those $$ put into “the war” without buying much in the way of language skills or cultural skills and without any real gameplan. A billon/per “al-Qaeda” without requiring a gameplan. Imagine going in looking for a billion $$ loan with no business plan. A hundred times over.

    On the other hand, for the end recips of the $$, the equippers and transporters and facilitaters, why would you want the war to end? What do you replace that boondoggle with?

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    As practiced by Cheney and his successor, the government is outsourcing warmaking, from latrines to showers to kitchens to guns and fighters to intelligence gathering, analysis and policy-making. A trickle of outsourced jobs has become a torrent, and it includes language skills and any value-added job requiring special skills for which top dollar can be charged. The priority becomes “harvesting” government’s tax revenues, not in doing the job and only the job government needs doing.

    Outsourcing has become ubiquitous. It often handicaps private companies in exchange for short-term gains. The process is only occasionally done well; it is rarely reversible and changing vendors can be excruciating. If corporate outsourcing can be painful, government outsourcing can be debilitating, even destructive.

    Governments aren’t built around making money; their job is to provide effective services at reasonable, predictable cost. When you buy it from the outside, you make less or none of it inside. You lose cost control because you know less about what a good job is or how to provide it. Changing vendors is expensive and time-consuming and inefficient. It does little to control costs or provide a better service, because the resources remain outside government’s control.

    The institutional loyalties of staff slip away – they are owed to the company, not the government – and staff become like the caricatures in a Lt. Ripley movie, where decisions and priorities evolve around a bonus or paycheck, not in doing well the jobs government needs doing.

  11. Agent420 says:

    Shouldn’t people have to pass an IQ test to get into government? I seems clear that most of the people in government cannot pass the test unless the requirements are that they score lower than 70 on the test.

  12. cwolf says:

    What about the US mercenaries? Are they Free?
    & the spooks from the CIA & the State Dept. & who knows how many other spy shops?
    & the cost to the VA & society to patch up all the broken bodies & minds
    that return from that thing on the other side of the planet?

    I wonder (NOT) if dropping robot bombs on babies is Being All That You Can Be or the best america has to offer.

  13. Hugh says:

    Panetta is saying nothing new. We knew there were almost no al Qaeda left in Afghanistan and that this has been the case for years. The war is not worth fighting. We knew that whatever its cost.

  14. researcher says:

    the price of imperialism and most americans are imperialists to the core.

    until americans look into a mirror and see their imperialism nothing will change in america.

    that will not happen imperialists are never able to see their own imperialism until it is too late.

    economic meltdown will stop american imperialism and not before that occurs.

    many americans are out and out war mongers. the churchs are full of them.

  15. tanbark says:

    Not to worry, folks: Today on “Fox News Sunday”, Diane Feinstein said that at this stage, we should “put all of our eggs in Petreaus’ basket.”

    Which I think is Obama’s plan…I’m real sorry to say.

  16. TarheelDem says:

    I find this story a bit baffling. 100 in contrast to what? How many al Quaeda members were in Afghanistan on 9/11? How exactly does the CIA know there are 100 or so al Quaeda members in Afghanistan and not know where they are? Why is the figure a number of al Quaeda members in Afghanistan and not including al Quaeda members in Pakistan but near the Afghanistan border?

    It seems clear that the US can’t decide what its mission is in Afghanistan — get rid of al Quaeda or stabilize the country. Especially when the presence of US troops contributes to the continued destabilization of Afghanistan.

  17. iremember54 says:

    God! They throw our billions like they were confetti over there.

    My suggestion is buy the Wiserastan part of Pakistan, on a lend lease agreement so it temporarily is American soil, then we can invade it and wipe out al Queda. Then Al Queda won’t be there to come back accross the border into Afghanistan, and we can give it back to Pakistan and come home.

    It makes more sense then spending years there with the excuse they will come back if we leave.

    Obama bought the broken record from Bush, and the part where we have to stay to keep al Queda from coming back keeps playing over, and over, and over.

    Now they say Afghanistan has minerals they think that’s a new excuse to stay. If You take their trillion dollars worth of minerals, deduct the cost of us being there, then deduct the cost of mining them, the cost of building roads to get the minerals out, and the cost of agreements to move the minerals out of Afghanistan, it would be doubtful there is any profit left.

    So kill the bad guy’s get it over and come home, like nice little Americans should do.

  18. beleck says:

    i just wonder how much longer they can spend until they bankrupt the country another time. how long before the crash hits the rest of America. how much more is there to take before the whole really crashes apart. they do hate society so. it is so in their way of untold profits. think of it, taking the money scott free. a market, a society with no rules, no sheriff, nothing to stand in their way of making more money.

    so easy to wipe out society by stealing its’ money. who cares about society. it’s all about the MONEY!!! Greed is Good, my friend. and easy pickings in America today.

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