The Political Economy of the Bullet in Afghanistan

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Tactics or Strategy? is an article by Francis J. “Bing” West (referred to me by a correspondent in Twitter — apologies for not noting the name for the appropriate thanks). In that piece, West makes a series of critical points that deserve wider, and focused, attention.

The first point he makes is that there is a bifurcated U.S. mission in Afghanistan, a division of goals between, on the one hand, ostensibly non-aggressive (non-kinetic) nation-building efforts, and on the other hand, aggressive military (kinetic) action. The first goal seems designed to win public support back home for the continued war in Afghanistan: “This non-kinetic theory of counterinsurgency has persuaded the liberal community in America to support or at least not to vociferously oppose the war.” The problem is policy-making confusion, that clearly we see reproduced by mainstream media, “between messages that gain domestic support and messages that direct battlefield operations.” West seems to be arguing that the purpose of the U.S. military mission ought to match what soldiers are trained to do, and that is, simply put, to kill. Remodeling nations is not the job of the military. By mainstream American standards, West even comes to the seemingly revolutionary conclusion that “only the Afghans can figure out what sort of society and leaders they want.”

What is also very interesting is the kind of reference West makes to the political economy of warfare. As he states,

“our ground forces are not inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. However, the annual bill for the US military in Afghanistan exceeds $70 billion, with another four to six billion for development. We’ve already spent $38 billion on Afghan reconstruction.”

The annual military bill for Afghanistan exceeds $70 billion U.S. Yet, he notes,

“Our soldiers only get a small number of chances to engage the enemy. Our battalions average one arrest every two months, and one platoon-sized patrol per day per company that infrequently makes solid contact.”

In addition,

“On average, a US rifleman will glimpse a Taliban once a month.”

Now, without meaning to sideline the many other important points West makes in that article (leaving the reader to pursue it further), it seems that we have the basis for an interesting political economy of the bullet.

If there were a database that recorded how many bullets had been distributed to U.S. troops and what they cost, and how many were actually fired in battle, and how many of those actually struck a Talib fighter, one could come to an average cost of what it takes to “deliver” one single bullet to the Taliban. This is where it gets interesting, and difficult. The two possibilities are: that so many bullets are being fired, that the money expended is due to sheer volume, or that very few bullets are being fired, making each one much more expensive to “deliver” than the specific cost of the bullet itself. Then there is the problem of figuring out what we mean by “cost.”

One needs to keep in mind that the purchase price itself is only part of the total cost of the bullet that penetrates the flesh of a Talib warrior. There is the price of the bullet, plus the price of transportation, plus the price of making the U.S. soldier that fires the bullet (training, feeding, clothing, arming, transporting, paying), plus the price of building a base to house that soldier, plus the price of general administration that governs soldiers, plus any other less obvious prices. In total, we come to a bill that is higher than West’s figure of $70 billion, because it is a larger military budget that makes the application of that specific portion possible. One cannot say that it is the entire annual U.S. military budget, since that includes expenditures on such things as cruise missiles and dinners for generals.

The problem is that the data on the number of U.S. bullets fired in battle in Afghanistan, and what they specifically cost are spotty. We have figures from other members of NATO’s so-called “International Security Assistance Force” (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which might provide some clues, with less informative reports for the U.S. In fact, accounting for such expenditures is a challenge even to those who have the necessary data. Then there are political reasons for not wanting to account.

On 12 January 2008, a report by Thomas Harding in Britain’s Telegraph (A year in Helmand: 4m bullets fired by British) reveals that 3,875,000 bullets were fired by British forces, in Helmand province alone, between August 2006 and September 2007. What is missing is information like West’s — so we don’t know if this number is the result of sparing use of ammunition in a great number of engagements, more than U.S. forces  experience (according to West), or a heavy amount of ammunition fired in a limited number of engagements. Moreover, the UK Ministry of Defense stopped reporting on the number of munitions expended in ground attacks: “the MoD soon stopped releasing figures on the munitions expended as it didn’t fit well with the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign that was being propounded as approach to defeat the Taliban” (source: James Fergusson, A Million Bullets).

More recently, on 10 August 2009, the Telegraph reported in an article by James Kirkup (British troops fire 12m bullets in three years) that “ammunition is being discharged at a rate of more than 12,000 rounds every day,” claiming that this illustrates “the severity of the fighting in which British forces are engaged.” Maybe, maybe not. British forces are certainly not killing or injuring anywhere near that number of Taliban fighters each day. In total, over a three year period, “British service personnel in Afghanistan have fired a total of 12,282,300” bullets. Officers alone fired 311,000 9mm rounds from their pistols.

Some numbers are also recorded for Canadian forces in Afghanistan. On 06 February 2008, in a report by CanWest (Canadians fired almost five million bullets in Afghanistan in two years), we learn that “Canadian troops fired more than 4.7 million bullets at insurgents over the last 20 months in Afghanistan.” That works out to about 2,820,000 fired in a 12 month period, so we can compare it to the first British figures above.

In terms of the number of bullets fired by U.S. forces, a widely quoted report by Andrew Buncombe in The Independent (US forced to import bullets from Israel as troops use 250,000 for every rebel killed – 25 September 2005) revealed that an estimated 250,000 bullets had been fired for every “insurgent” killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. With American suppliers unable to meet the demand for bullets, the U.S. has turned to imports from Israel. Buncombe cites a U.S. government report that says “US forces are now using 1.8 billion rounds of small-arms ammunition a year.” One source he cites states that 6 billion bullets were expended between 2002 and 2005. The cost of the Israeli bullets? “The Pentagon reportedly bought 313 million rounds of 5.56mm, 7.62mm and 50-calibre ammunition last year and paid $10m … more than it would have cost for it to produce the ammunition at its own facilities” — which does not tell us the specific cost of the bullets. A report published by MSNBC says that in general U.S. bullets cost “about 33 cents each.”

[Most of the reports I have seen do not seem to factor in costs such as fraudulent arms deals, a loss of 30% of small arms imported into Afghanistan, U.S. ammunition mistakenly air dropped into Taliban hands (see the video), as well as the $16.5 billion plus a new $5.7 billion installment for the U.S. program to arm and train the Afghan army and police, and other such costs (see Guns in Afghanistan for more).]

If the estimate of 250,000 rounds fired per Talib killed is correct, that tells us two things. First, the ammunition is not used sparingly, which answers one of our first questions. Second, if we take the lowest available figure of 33 cents per bullet, that means it costs $82,500 to kill one Talib fighter. That is a minimum, because as I indicated the real cost — everything needed to get those bullets in place and fired by trained soldiers — is much higher. At a higher range, if as West says $70 billion are spent annually in military expenditures for Afghanistan (in fact, it has been more), and if we estimate (because there are few reliable counts, and the U.S. refuses to count further) that 2,000 Taliban are killed by the U.S. alone in one year (a high count), then that would mean $35,000,000 spent on killing one Talib. That seems extreme, except, as mentioned before, that $70 billion is only made practical, applicable and deployable thanks to much larger U.S. military appropriations that exceed half of one trillion dollars per annum…we just cannot divide that by the number of Taliban killed, however, since those expenditures go well beyond preparing for Afghanistan.

Given these estimates, the cost of killing one Talib may be as “little” as $82,500 to something above $35 million (based on the paucity of information available, and based on how one wants to calculate the costs of killing).

Let’s take the first figure. In 2009, the U.S. public debt will be approximately 90% of GDP (source). The national debt itself works out to between $25,000 (one source) and $30,400 per person, in the U.S., as of February 2008 (other source). On average, it means it requires the full national debt of three Americans for every one Talib killed, with much of the debt owed to China, Japan, and oil producing countries. In terms of U.S. per capita income of $47,000 (source), then it would take the entire income of almost two persons in the U.S. to pay for the killing of one Talib per year. That is just for the bullets fired — we did not factor in bombs, missiles, artillery shells, and so forth.

Think then of everything behind that one bullet, pushing it as it penetrates the flesh of a Talib fighter. Think of the political struggles in the U.S. and other NATO countries around the war, the escalating debts, the financial crisis, global trade, the cost of financing and equipping an army — all of it, helping to push a single bullet.


I then contrast the above information with what I found here: “Terrorism, Security, and Selective Rights in an Age of Retributive Fear,” by Daniel Fischlin, in The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 30:253–274, 2008:

Buncombe’s report [quoted above] does not make the connection between the economic expenditure on the egregious ordnance in play and the fact that in Afghanistan, for example, ‘‘Thirty-nine percent of Afghans under the age of five are malnourished and 61 percent depend on untreated water’’ (Gasper 2007). The misbalanced allocation of resources redoubles the suffering of the Afghans via not only the terror unleashed through military means but also through the ongoing abuse of rights exemplified in living conditions that lead to malnourished infants and the lack of potable water. In the latter case, the right to the highest attainable standard of health is well established in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 12’s interpretation extends from health care to the underlying determinants of health, including adequate supplies of food, nutrition, housing, potable water, and health, occupational and environmental living conditions. The war ‘‘as’’ terrorism here cuts with a double-edged sword, then: both in the overt expenditure of unsurpassed amounts of ordnance (with all the concomitant contamination of human and ecological systems) and in the covert decisions that allocate resources away from outcomes that support the tenor of the ICESCR article on human health and, by extension, security.

This imbalance is only one of many: ‘‘While the U.S. and its allies have provided $7.3 billion for development projects [in Afghanistan] since 2002, much of this money has vanished and they have spent a staggering $82.5 billion on military operations’’ (Gasper). Even when it comes to the most basic economies of scale in trying to establish putative ‘‘order’’ there are profound imbalances: ‘‘The Taliban are paying $100 a month to fighters, while the Afghan police make only $70’’ (Campbell 2007). Moreover, as Deborah Campbell reports in evaluating Canada’s role in the Afghan conflict, ‘‘Not a single significant water treatment, sewage or power plant has been built, and virtually nothing has been done for the thousands of Afghans made homeless by Canadian fighting. The [Canadian] Senate committee on national security and defense says it has found little evidence that the Canadian International Development Agency [CIDA] is doing the development work it is charged with, and journalists and academics attempting to trace Canadian foreign aid in Afghanistan have encountered a wall of secrecy. Thus far, not a single audit has been released to the public’’ (n.p.). One must ask what, if any, are the benefits of such a massive misallocation of resources that perpetuate cycles of violence in the name of development and democracy. (pages 254-255)

If anyone can point out mistaken assumptions in the article above, whether mine or Fischlin’s or any of those cited, and/or incorrect statistics, incorrect calculations, flawed estimates, and so forth, please feel free to post your corrections.

You might also think about how you go about justifying this war in Afghanistan, or as Fischlin puts it best, the war as terrorism.

Finally, you might also want to look at an older post on this site, very much related in some ways: 09-11-1984, The Calculus of Fear: When Trivial Terrors Become the “Real Threats.”

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6 thoughts on “The Political Economy of the Bullet in Afghanistan

  1. Max,

    Interesting premise…but flawed. TIC’s or Troops in Contact is a more established military metric for the violence of an area. I am not aware of bullets used as a reliable indication of anything other whether the troops used full auto vs sniper fire :) . Aircraft, vehicles and fixed installations have pretty impressive toys that can blow through serious amounts of bullets with little actual “win” attached to the cyclical rate. Although you point out the bullets used in Helmand there was also a robust “talking” program going on that achieved more that the “shooting” program. In a proper COIN strategy the use of force is always assumed as the last resort but can facilitate the “soft” approach.

    The idea of knocking off “HVT”s is losing ground because all you do is break the enemy into smaller and less controllable elements. But it a good way to “shake up” a hardened terrorist or criminal group. It is always up to the locals to ensure their own security so breaking down these groups until they can be dealt with at the law enforcement or local level can be a positive thing…if there is law enforcement or even a viable social structure in place. In Iraq there were mechanisms and money in place, not so in Afghanistan which is an “economy of force” project.

    The real metric is usually the populations “perception of security” or lack of security. It is this motivactional force that aligns them with the government, military or alternative power structures for survival. You can then better balance costs vs results. If the taliban behead a village elder and intimidate an entire group of people that is much different that two groups firing at each other when both groups feel “secure” because they are armed and engaging.

    There is also confusion about “airstrikes” being “good” or “bad”. There is a big difference between a targeted strike that can be planned and surgical vs Close Air Support that can be chaotic and damaging. Much of the publicity on air strikes are on the CAS type used to help a unit disengage when overwhelmed. The MARSOC events in Western Afghanistan are examples of highly contentious use of airpower and the covert Predator strikes in Waziristan against taliban leaders are examples of less contentious use of air power.

    So the bottom line is that the less “bullets” you use the better. Ideally wars should be won without a single shot fired in anger. You might remember the Soviet detente era in which both sides worked to outspend each other but never actually used the expensive toys they built.

    In any case I enjoy your creative view of things but bullets are just one of the kinetic weapons used in warfare.

  2. Thanks very much RYP.

    You mentioned “TIC’s or Troops in Contact is a more established military metric for the violence of an area” — do you know if there is any published data on this? Also, would that number of bullets have been expended without contact?

    The British news reports, and British parliamentary debates, as well as the defensive reactions of Britain’s MoD, all seemed to suggest that the millions of bullets fired had been fired in battle. If West is right, and the number of actual engagements is limited, it created the impression of troops spraying clouds of bullets in every direction (which may or may not be wrong).

    The point about Predator air drones and their strikes in Pakistan. I was not sure about what you meant regarding for whom these are more or less contentious: the Pakistani authorities, until three months ago, were protesting them loudly (even while facilitating them), while people living in the area seemed nothing less than outraged. There was as also a report by MSNBC that suggested the Predator attacks had been indiscriminate:

    “I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at al-Qaida and Taliban houses,” confessed 19-year-old Habibur Rehman, just before the Taliban shot him dead for spying for the United States. “If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars,” he said.

    In a video released last week by the Taliban as a warning to other would-be spies, Rehman recounted how he was recruited to spy on the Taliban in North Waziristan and drop small transmitter chips on specific targets to call in CIA pilotless drone aircraft.

    “I thought this was a very easy job,” Rehman said in the video before he was killed. “The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money.”

    At any rate, the information that I am lacking is the exact cost of bullets, the exact number fired in battle by ground troops, and the number of insurgents actually killed by them — just for a more complete picture of the bullet. One could have done a similar piece on bombs, missiles, etc.

    Also a more complete political economy of the bullet would have to stretch back to the mining of the raw material, shipment of ore, smelting, manufacturing, selling, etc., and all the workers along the chain. I had very limited information to work with.

  3. I know Afghans are very poor and very docile.How did change took place and what are the reasons for this taliban change. In India we loved them and not seen them ever in my younger days misbehaved with any one . Within 60 years instead of improvement Afganisthan is falling behind.Why food and other materials are not provided to them and allow them to run their own country without any outside interference .

  4. “Why food and other materials are not provided to them and allow them to run their own country without any outside interference.”

    Exactly. Why? Because those provisions are not given either freely or generously, but rather with very big ropes and hooks attached to them. These are not “strings” that are attached, but something resembling more of an anchor. The “aid” is given with the expectation of a “return,” in this case, submission, obedience, and rejection of their own in favour of the foreign invader.

  5. Max,
    I am not aware of the stats you are seeking but I can assure you that troops do not spray bullets indiscriminately. It may appear that way to the casual observer but its more for movies than real combat. Suppressing fire may appear “indiscriminate” but its not. And the number of bullets expended do not directly relate to level of violence or casualties.

    Predator attacks are not indiscriminate. And as you point out they are condoned and publicly condemned by the Pak government. Lethal predator strikes are expensive, require accurate targeting and legal permission. There are civilian casualties but there is a matrix for determining this. The higher the HVT the larger amount of collateral damage.

    But my point is that military actions that include lethal consequences are among the most planned and managed activities. Yes they are fraught with problems but you would be surprised at how much activity goes on behind the scenes after a incident involving civilian casualties.

    In any case the premise is interesting by outdated by advances in lethal tools used in modern warfare.

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