It's no secret that the Iraq War has cost the United States in terms of blood and treasure.
However, two recent developments hint that the cost of the war may be much, much higher than what can be measured in lives or dollars.
The first comes out of Britain, where top generals and defense ministers say the war has utterly destroyed Britain's capability to send its military abroad. Testifying before the House of Commons late last month, General Sir Michael Walker said that it would take five to six years to put the British army back into fighting shape after the Iraqi War and its aftermath. "I think we have already accepted that we cannot do another large-scale operation now," he said in a report by The Daily Telegraph. "We are unlikely to be able to get to large-scale much before the end of the decade, somewhere around 08 or 09."
Walker also testified that the British army had diverted some of its elite paratroopers -- including the vaunted Special Air Service -- to Iraq instead of Afghanistan. In the simplest sense, this means fewer troops hunting for Osama Bin Laden and his top lieutenants. But in quality terms, it's a big deal. The British infantry are known as some of the best in the world, and the loss of these troops represents a substantial loss of capability for U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan.
This news from Britain thus reveals two previously hidden costs of the war with Iraq. First, America's closest ally has shot its wad, militarily speaking. Should another conflict erupt, such as another civil war in the Balkans or something in Korea, the British army would be unable to effectively respond. Second, it's clear from this report that Iraq has drained military resources from the hunt for al-Qaeda, including some of the best infantry in the world. It's impossible to know whether these British troops would've made the difference in Afghanistan. But even Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff agreed this week that U.S. operations in Iraq have "indeed" been a distraction from the fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But wait -- it gets worse.
The U.S. Army has a piggy bank of sorts, known as Army Prepositioned Stocks ("pre-po" for short). These are large sets of military equipment around the world on container ships, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. Every year the Pentagon pays hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain these fleets of equipment. These stocks sit in places like Korea, and a tiny island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia. In a crisis, war plans call for troops to deploy from the United States by air while this equipment steams to meet them, obviating the need for a massive sea transport from the United States.
Unfortunately, the Army and the Marine Corps have robbed their piggy bank in order to support the war in Iraq.
In testimony on March 24 before Congress, senior Army and Marine Corps officials said that they had tapped into the pre-po stocks in order to outfit the units that fought in Iraq. The Army downloaded three of its five brigade-sized sets in order to fight in Iraq, and the Marines used equipment from 11 of their 16 pre-po ships. Nearly all of this equipment continues to be used today in Iraq. Consequently, America's pre-po stocks are tied up in Iraq, and there is no foreseeable date when the Army and the Marine Corps will put their stuff back into the piggy bank.
"It will take time to return the maritime prepositioning force program to pre-Operation Iraqi Freedom employment capability," said Marine Corps Brigadier General Robert Neller. "The use of maritime prepositioning squadron assets in support of [ongoing postwar operations] may extend the overall reconstitution time line."
The nonpartisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) was less sanguine about the effects of the war on these equipment stocks. "The Army used nearly all of its prepositioned ship stocks and its ashore stocks in Kuwait and Qatar, as well as drawing some stocks from Europe," said William Solis, director of the GAO's Defense Management and Capabilities section. "It will be several years -- depending on how long Iraqi Freedom operations continue -- before these stocks will be available to return to prepositioning programs."
The GAO further said that much of the equipment being used in Iraq will require maintenance and overhaul before being put back on the ships. The GAO and the Army agree that putting these stocks back together will cost more than $1.7 billion. Roughly $700 million has already been pledged toward this goal, but that still leaves a huge unfunded bill for the Army. "It is clear that there is a significant bill that will have to be paid for reconstitution of Army prepositioned stocks at some point in the future," Solis added.
So what does all this mean?
First, that the Army and the Marine Corps have robbed their equipment piggy banks to pay for the war in Iraq. It's possible that doing so saved money, because every tank borrowed from these stocks was one less tank that had to be shipped from Texas or Georgia. But it will be enormously costly -- in terms of time and money -- to put these stocks back together.
Second, the use of this equipment in Iraq means that it is not available for other crises that may emerge during the next few years. It's impossible to know when and where U.S. troops will be needed next -- a humanitarian crisis in Africa, a conflict on the Indian subcontinent, or any number of scenarios in Korea. But when that crisis comes, this pre-po equipment will not be available. That will constrain America's ability to respond militarily to events around the world.
For at least the next three to five years, U.S. strategic options abroad will be limited by the depletion of the pre-po stocks. It will be much harder for our troops to deploy with the stuff they need to fight (or build nations) on a moment's notice. Without these stocks, U.S. units will have to fly or sail with their equipment from their home bases, something that is very difficult given the limited availability of cargo airplanes and transport ships.
Similarly, our closest ally will also be out of the fight for at least the next three to five years. The loss of British military support is very problematic, as it's the next most advanced force in the world after our own. Most other NATO allies are vastly inferior (in technological terms) to the U.S. military, and that makes it quite difficult to work and fight with them.
Ultimately, these issues factor into the basic question about Iraq: Was it worth it? The hidden costs of the war go far beyond the daily headlines about U.S. casualties or dollars spent on Iraqi reconstruction. The decision to tap into America's pre-po stocks and stretch our allies' militaries to their breaking point has cost us a great deal in terms of our future security -- and our nation's ability to respond to threats that we may not even know about today.
Phillip Carter is a former U.S. Army officer who served as a platoon leader and operational planner in the 2nd Infantry Division (Korea) and 4th Infantry Division (Texas). He now lives in Los Angeles and writes on legal and military affairs. His blog can be found at philcarter.blogspot.com.
An abridged version of this story ran in the May issue of The American Prospect.