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On Afghanistan and Infrastructure Spending

On August 31, 2021, the United States officially ended its war in Afghanistan. This formal achievement came after weeks of evacuations while attacks on Americans and Afghans dominated headlines and threatened to scuttle the withdrawal. As of the writing of this article, there are still reports of Taliban brutality and American ineptitude in the wake of U.S. occupation. The press coverage of the failed American retreat impacted public opinion, as support for the withdrawal “dropped 20 percentage points from April to August,” according to Politico. Through all of this, President Biden has stood firm on ending American occupation and securing the safe passage of troops, personnel, and families to the United States. From a fairly moderate leader, this degree of principle is inspiring, but also raises the question of whether that commitment extends to domestic issues. As disasters continue to mount at home, will President Biden fight for his own infrastructure bill like he fought to pull out of Afghanistan?

Withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan took a significant amount of commitment from President Biden, as the Taliban quickly regained large swaths of territory. This was not entirely surprising, given the Trump Administration struck a deal in early 2020 to begin withdrawing U.S. forces, allowing the Taliban to lay the groundwork for its future power play. Nevertheless, the Trump deal was largely forgotten in a year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and a tumultuous presidential election. Now, 18 months after the deal was struck, Americans are getting cold feet about pulling out of Afghanistan with little to show for the effort.

At such a juncture, it is important to emphasize just how disastrous the war in Afghanistan has been – both for Afghans and Americans. The war had a staggering death toll, with at least 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police killed since October 2001. More horrific is the nearly 111,000 civilian casualties since 2009. On top of that, over 4,200 U.S soldiers and aid workers died in the conflict. That level of devastation and waste is criminal, especially in light of the untold devastation the Afghan people have endured over the last 20 years.

The American people, while not living in an active war zone, have also had to deal with the consequences of bloated military costs paired with economic crises. When the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, Americans were profoundly impacted by 9/11, but still lived in relative prosperity. That standard of living took a major hit in 2008 when the financial crisis led to unprecedented job loss and economic decline in the United States. Yet, the United States spent anywhere from $955 billion to $2.3 trillion dollars over 20 years in Afghanistan in spite of these economic downturns. Such a wake-up call might encourage a country to roll back its foreign entanglements and commit more of its spending to the home front. Rather than following that course of action, the United States doubled down on its commitment to the war, drastically increasing troop levels and spending from 2009 to 2011. At a time when an economic stimulus failed to bring relief to main street, President Obama saw it appropriate that $100 billion would be spent on the war in Afghanistan per year.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the end of American involvement in Afghanistan came in the wake of another economic disaster. As efforts to contain the virus fell flat, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced jobs and worsened conditions for Americans, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Thousands of Americans face eviction now that moratoriums have expired, threatening to increase the U.S homeless population even more than was seen after the foreclosure boom in 2007 and 2008. 

This economic crisis is also taking place in the midst of historic natural disasters like Hurricane Ida and several California wildfires that threaten housed and unhoused Americans alike. While more callous individuals may argue that job loss or homelessness—even during a pandemic—is a personal failure, even they would likely agree that losing a home or possessions due to a natural disaster is a tragedy. This dire reality confronts large swaths of Americans lately after Hurricane Ida tore through the eastern half of the country, while wildfires continue to eat away at the west. Climate change has made these catastrophic events more common, hence why federal spending to combat climate change is a key sticking point for Congressional progressives. Ida revealed that the U.S. still lacks the defenses against disasters that made Hurricane Katrina a tragedy 16 years ago and Hurricane Maria a blight on Puerto Rico just four years ago. It also showed that American infrastructure as a whole is in desperate need of an overhaul. Ida’s effects severely impacted the New York City subway system, as well as power lines, roads, and transportation across the eastern United States. If cataclysmic weather like Hurricane Ida are going to be more frequent in the future, then any attempt to mitigate the decay of American jobs and infrastructure must consider climate action to be taken seriously.

In light of these compounding catastrophes, bold government spending should be championed by Democrats, not denounced. Despite appearances, the latest economic and natural disasters have not caught the White House flat-footed. The Biden administration is currently shepherding a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion dollar budget through Congress. The infrastructure bill is likely to pass easily, considering its final text was reached after extensive bipartisan negotiation. However, this means that items championed by progressives, like electric car charging stations and investment in renewable energy, have been whittled down to fractions of initial spending targets. Such a discrepancy might have been answered by the proposed budget currently in reconciliation, had President Biden not promised to refrain from making up for cuts in the infrastructure bill in the budget. 

Such a concession won over Republicans to the bill but still wasn’t enough to earn the support of moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Both senators have publicly expressed concerns over the $3.5 trillion spending package, with Manchin voicing his qualms in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Unfortunately, people whose families died in a condo collapse or in a hurricane are likely unconcerned with the effects of inflation. Further, a budget crisis before the midterm elections would likely be the final nail in the Democrats’ coffin, as they have faced a series of legal and legislative setbacks on issues from abortion to voting rights. With progressives holding out on a final infrastructure vote until the passage of the reconciliation bill, Manchin and Sinema’s cold feet might be deadly for the Democratic majority.

This stark reality invites a return to the question: what is Joe Biden going to do about this legislative logjam? Biden is clearly capable of ignoring popular consensus and keeping a hardline, as evidenced in his Afghanistan withdrawal. While he did give the Pentagon the carrot of increased defense spending, President Biden is also capable of wielding the stick to accomplish key promises. As domestic disasters pile up, will the president use that political will to push through his budget and infrastructure plan? Both policies are generally popular, though Afghanistan has shown how quickly public opinion can shift. The true tragedy is that such major spending packages require extensive Congressional approval, while decisions about the lives of Afghans or the reproductive health of Americans can be made virtually unilaterally. 

The exception, of course, comes when there is sustained public pressure in favor of policies. If Joe Manchin believes his constituents would not support a $3.5 trillion spending package, then a large public rally in support of that bill might convince him of the contrary. If Kyrsten Sinema finds the progressives’ proposed budget too risky, she’ll also see a sustained letter-writing campaign as a threat to her seat. This type of campaign would require the squashing of beef between progressives and establishment Democrats, but if the end goal is spending to combat the climate crisis, then that alliance is necessary. In the 2020 primary race, Senator Bernie Sanders and his allies formed a large constituency of voters who support such bold action as the proposed spending and infrastructure bills. If that same constituency came to the table in large numbers to pressure moderates like Manchin and Sinema to support the bill, they would be able to exert the political power denied to them in March and April. Such a movement would need organizing and attention, but those costs are far less severe than allowing these programs to slip through Biden’s fingers, leaving Americans to face the effects of climate change alone. In a nation of rugged individualists, collective action is a rare antidote. In the case of climate change, it might be the only cure available to our ailing planet.

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A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.