The Afghan debate in the blogosphere is reaching new heights of late, mainly due to the recent Afghan elections and Admiral Mullen’s comments concerning the deteriorating US position vis-à-vis the Taliban.  One issue that seems to be lost in this discussion is the opportunity cost of US involvement in Afghanistan. 

Opportunity cost is commonly understood as the value of the road not taken—what alternatives were not accomplished or attained as a result of a specific course of action.  In other words, what is the US forgoing in the foreign policy landscape as a result of continued involvement in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has the flavor of revving up and by all accounts, it will not be a short-term commitment.   Any strategy centered around population security will take years to yield results. 

Sure, the war against al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban insurgents has merit given the 9/11 attack, but what is the opportunity cost?  After a steep, long-term cost in US lives and treasure, what will be the likely results?  Will Afghanistan look any different and will it be materially better than it is today?  Or are counter-insurgency operations there much like digging in the sand—no sooner are some insurgents removed before others fill in behind them?

Is this effort more important than having the ability to respond in a meaningful way to a multitude of international crises?  Is it more important than reassuring US allies and partners that America will be there if they are so threatened?

While the US has been slogging through counter-insurgencies and nation-building, Russia has risen from the ashes of its Cold War implosion to exert a great amount of power in its “near abroad.”  The fledgling democracy in Georgia got hammered by the Russian armed forces in a matter of days last year.  Recently, Russian President Medvedev, posted to the public a letter to Ukraine’s president that essentially stated that he was a political corpse.  Both Georgia and Ukraine were on deck to enter into NATO—backed by a very public US effort—and yet they’ve been left to the mercy of the Kremlin’s will.

If the Russians were not deterred from occupying the territory of a nation which was on the short list for NATO inclusion, what does that say about the state of US deterrence and its concomitant effect on US foreign policy? 

The decade began with a transformation effort designed to make the armed forces more expeditionary and more suited to mobile, distributed operations throughout the globe and for a wide-range of missions.  But the shift of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan means US forces are still dependent on large overseas bases.  And rather than having the ability to engage across a spectrum of warfare, the U.S. military—most acutely our ground forces—is now almost solely equipped for counter-insurgency operations. 

Is Afghanistan more important than rebuilding the heavily committed US military—in terms of both equipment and peronnel—to ensure the military instrument of power is prepared for the future?  Is the likely outcome in Afghanistan more important than the financial needs of an ailing US economy?  The US requires economic power to pursue its foreign policy goals as well, and this aspect of national power is currently flagging with the status and timeframe of economic recovery still in doubt.

Does it really make sense to make a greater commitment to Afghanistan when there are so many other uses for the US military and American treasure in the foreign policy realm?  In short, America’s opportunity cost for meager success in Afghanistan may be the loss of nascent democracies in Georgia and Ukraine.  This opportunity cost could grow exponentially if the actions of a resurgent Russia force other US allies to rethink their defense policy and divert resources from global expeditionary operations to shore up their home defense.  If US allies pull back from global expeditionary operations—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Horn of Africa to name a few—this will simply increase the pressure on the US to pick up the slack.

America’s Afghan commitment may also translate into a worn out US military.  The costs of Iraqi involvement are now sunk cost and the end of extensive US involvement there is in sight as the local government and security forces assume responsibility for their country.  But another decade of intense counter-insurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan will mean more extensive rebuilding and recapitalization programs.  Of course, such programs will be more difficult to fund after prolonged wartime expenditures, a questionable economic recovery timeline, and a future more commonly understood to include massive government deficits.

The beauty of the opportunity cost concept is that it forces the nation to ask tough questions about priorities.  The US foreign policy establishment should be asking what the likely outcome in Afghanistan will be and what US commitment will be required to achieve it.  And then America should ask what things will NOT be achieved due to this Afghan commitment.  This will reveal not only US priorities, but also the American opportunity cost for increasing the US investment in Afghanistan.  Real answers to these bold questions may just surprise us, but at least the nation will go forward with its eyes wide open.

Lt Col Paul Bauman, U.S. Air Force, is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed in his articles are his own and do not reflect official U.S. Air Force or other U.S. Government opinions or policies.