By Drew Brooks Military editor
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – U.S. Army leaders in Afghanistan have squeezed as much savings as they can from the war, and they say a smaller troop presence will not necessarily translate to less money spent.
As U.S. forces continue to leave Afghanistan, they are being replaced in many cases by civilian contractors, said Col. Dwayne Harris, who oversaw financial management for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.
Harris, who has a similar role at Fort Bragg for the 18th Airborne Corps, said the Army has hit a wall in the Afghanistan drawdown because of fixed costs related to its current footprint – 25 bases of varying size that will remain through the end of the year.
“We’re sort of at a point of diminishing returns,” he said. “Unless we start closing huge bases like (Kandahar Airfield), we’re not going to gain any more efficiencies out of this budget.”
Harris said there is “no direct correlation between a reduction of U.S. troops and a reduction of the budget.”
He said any savings from a smaller troop presence are negated by the added contractors, who are in Afghanistan to fill gaps created by having fewer troops.
He described the added contractors as “buying back capacity.”
“As we take U.S. troops out, we’re also taking capability out, and that capability has to be augmented in some way, shape or form,” Harris said.
In January 2012, when there were 91,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, the ratio of service members to contractors was roughly 1:1, officials said.
By the end of the year, that ratio is expected to be 1:2.4, meaning that for the 9,800 U.S. troops expected to stay in Afghanistan, there will be roughly 23,500 civilian contractors.
Col. Ken Dyer, who oversaw retrograde, redeployment and material reduction for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said the contractors are needed to help maintain equipment and perform other important tasks the remaining troops simply won’t have the manpower to tackle.
“The mission’s changed. … That contract support is going to continue to play a critical role,” Dyer said. “You can’t separate the military logisticians anymore from defense contractors. We’re very much integrated.”
Besides, he said, there are simply some things commercial partners do better than the U.S. military.
Harris said there is a misconception the transition to a smaller U.S. presence in Afghanistan will result in a sort of “peace dividend.”
“That’s just not the case,” he said.
He said the 18th Airborne Corps is a good steward of taxpayer money.
Since February, when the corps deployed to form the core of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, Harris said, he and others worked hard to find those savings.
The end result, he said, was that the U.S. military spent about $5.9 billion there in 2014, despite originally having a budget of about $8 billion. Harris said much of the savings was identified early.
“The budget was probably overestimated for the amount of things we needed to get done here,” he said. “We had about $2 billion more than we needed. We returned that money.”
Harris said it is important for the leadership to take those savings out of the budget immediately and get it in the “hands of people who can use it.”
“I’m sure that money made its way to other operations that you know about around here,” he said.
Harris does not want to imply that his job was easy or that savings were easy to find.
He said uncertainty in Afghanistan – including the drawdown, presidential elections, and the signing of agreements between U.S. forces and the new Afghan government – led to some unexpected expenses.
“From a budgetary standpoint, it’s almost impossible to plan for those things. How could you know?” he said. “You can never sit back, relax and say, ‘Hey, I think we’ve got this.’ Every single day represents another opportunity for things to go wrong.”
When Operation Resolute Support begins in the new year, Harris said, the U.S. budget in Afghanistan will likely be about half the budget officials had at the start of 2014, or about 60 percent of what they actually spent over the course of the year.