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This article originally appeared on TomDispatch

Cutting $100 Billion?... Easy
If Only Washington Had a Brain

By Tom Engelhardt

Here's the latest news from Congress, in case you've been in Afghanistan for the last couple of weeks.  A debate about slashing the federal budget is now upon us, while fears of a possible government shutdown as spring approaches are on the rise.  The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives originally picked $40 billion as its target figure for cuts to the as-yet-not-enacted 2011 budget. That was the gauntlet it threw down to the Obama administration, only to find its own proposal slashed to bits by the freshman class of that body's conservative majority.

They insisted on adhering to a Republican Pledge to America vow to cut $100 billion from the budget.  With that figure back on the table, Democrats are gasping, while pundits are predicting widespread pain in the land, including the possible loss of at least 70,000 jobs "as government aid to cops, teachers, and research is slashed."

In the meantime, the Obama administration has hustled its own entry in the cut-and-burn sweepstakes into place, leaving Democrats again gasping.  Its plan calls for ending or trimming more than 200 federal programs next year.  It also reportedly offers cuts adding up to $1.1 trillion over a decade and puts in place a "five-year freeze on domestic programs [that] would reduce spending in that category to the lowest level, measured against the economy, since President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961."

It all sounds daunting, and the muttering is only beginning about "entitlement" programs -- Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- that have yet to be touched. 

Which reminds me: Didn't I mention Afghanistan?

If so, how fortunate, because there's a perfectly obvious path toward that Republican goal of $100 billion.  If we were to embark on it, there would be even more cuts to follow and -- believe it or not -- they wouldn't be all that painful, provided we did one small thing: change our thinking about making war.

After all, according to the Pentagon, the cost of the Afghan War in 2012 will be almost $300 million a day or, for all 365 of them, $107.3 billion.  Like anything having to do with American war-fighting, however, such figures regularly turn out to be undercounts.  Other estimates for our yearly war costs there go as high as $120-$160 billion.

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And let's face it, it's a war worth ending fast.  Almost a decade after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. military is still fruitlessly engaged in possibly the stupidest frontier war in our history, thousands of miles from home in the backlands of the planet.  It's just the sort of dumb conflict that has, historically, tended to drive declining imperial powers around the bend, just the sort -- in the very same country -- that helped do in the Soviet Union.  And though news from that war remains remarkably grim, were we by some miracle to win, for hundreds of billions of dollars we would have gained tenuous control over the fifth poorest, second most corrupt, and premier narco-state on the planet.  Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, would undoubtedly still be happily ensconced in the Pakistani tribal border areas with a range of superbly failed states available elsewhere for exploitation.

There's genuine money to be slashed simply by bringing the troops home, but okay, I hear you.  You live in Washington and you can't bear to give up that war, lock, stock, and barrel. 

I understand.  Really, I do.  So let's just pretend that we're part of that "moderate" and beleaguered House leadership and really only want to go after $40 billion in the 2011 federal budget. 

In that case, here's an idea! We've been training the Afghan military and police forces for almost a decade now, dumping an estimated $29-billion-plus into the endeavor, only to find that, unlike the Taliban, our Afghans generally prefer not to fight and love to desert.  What if the Obama administration were simply to stop the training program?  What if we weren't to spend the $11.6 billion slated for this year, or the up-to-$12.8 billion being discussed for next year, or the $6 billion or more annually thereafter to create a security force of nearly 400,000 Afghans that we'll have to pay for into eternity, since the Afghan government is essentially broke?

What if, instead, we went cold turkey on our obsession with training Afghans?  For one thing, you'd promptly wipe out more than a quarter of that $40 billion the House leadership wants cut and many more billions for years to come.  (And that doesn't even take into account all the saveable American dollars going down the tubes in Afghanistan -- a recent report from the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction suggested it adds up to $12 billion for the Afghan Army alone -- in graft, corruption, and pure incompetence.)

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Think about it this way: Are we actually safer if we get rid of police, firefighters, and teachers here in the U.S., while essentially hiring hordes of police and military personnel to secure Afghanistan?  I suspect you know how most Americans would answer that question.

Dumb Intelligence Runs Rampant

Here's another way to approach both those $40 billion and $100 billion targets.  Start with the budget for the labyrinthine U.S. Intelligence Community which is officially $80.1 billion.  That, of course, is sure to prove an undercount.  So, just for the heck of it, let's take a wild guess and assume that the real figure probably edges closer to... $100 billion.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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