It isn't often that the U.S. Conference of Mayors expresses its collective opinion on an issue of foreign policy. The last time the group did so was in 1971, when it called on the president and Congress to end the war in Vietnam. So it was significant that the nation's mayors, meeting in Baltimore over the weekend, voted overwhelming on Monday to urge President Obama to do the same in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the aim of redirecting the billions of dollars we are spending on those wars toward addressing the pressing problems facing America's cities today.
It's probably safe to assume the mayors, who by definition are nearly all seasoned political professionals, are fully aware that any "peace dividend" that results from ending a foreign war rarely translates directly into more domestic spending. The group's resolution called on Mr. Obama to use the money we are spending in Afghanistan and Iraq to "meet vital human needs, promote job creation, rebuild our infrastructure, aid municipal and state governments, and develop a new economy based upon renewable, sustainable energy and reduce the federal debt."
The truth is, the idea that the $126 billion a year being spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could be pumped back into support for America's cities is mostly a pipe dream. As it is, we're already borrowing the money to fight, and given the political realities in Washington, where Congress seems obsessed with slashing spending for everything except defense, there is little chance the mayors' wishes will come true. Still, the resolution does underscore the tremendous costs of these two wars and the extent to which they have handicapped our ability to address pressing needs at home.
President Obama is slated to announce his decision on how many troops he will bring home from Afghanistan and how quickly in a speech tomorrow night. The latest reports suggest that he will announce the eventual withdrawal of the 30,000 service members sent there as part of last year's "surge" but that the timing of the withdrawals is still undetermined. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has cautioned that a precipitous withdrawal would endanger the progress the U.S. has made in pushing back the Taliban over the last year, and his replacement, current CIA director Leon Panetta, reportedly shares that view.
The White House has made clear that the president is weighing national security considerations, the impact of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the ability of the Afghan government and security forces to maintain the gains we have fought for. However, he would do well to also heed the voices of America's mayors and to at least add into the calculations the costs and benefits we can expect from our strategic options in Afghanistan — and the opportunity costs of pouring money into a corruption-plagued nation halfway across the world.
Although the Afghan army and police have grown in numbers and capability, there's still a real question of whether they can hold their own against a determined insurgency after the U.S. and NATO turn full responsibility for the country's security over to them in 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains as feckless and unpredictable as ever, alternately denouncing the U.S. presence and demanding Western aid to prop up his tenuous grip on power. The endemic corruption and incompetence of his government are as bad as ever, and its ruling clique shows no sign of either reforming itself or of allowing a democratic transition to more capable hands.
After 10 years of war and trillions invested in fighting, training and rebuilding, it is unclear whether we will ever be able to produce a peaceful, stable and democratic Afghanistan. But at a time when American cities are being forced to lay off teachers, police officers and firefighters, we know what that kind of investment would produce here.