Joe Biden claimed in tonight's debate that "we spend more money in three weeks on combat in Iraq than we spent on the entirety of the last seven years that we have been in Afghanistan building that country." The claim sounds stunning, and Biden has made it before; he said the same thing in a March 2 New York Times op-ed and at a Senate foreign relations committee hearing a year earlier.
The key word here is building . To make the claim work, one needs to compare only the reconstruction costs in Afghanistan with the entire Department of Defense bill for Iraq. According to the most recent Congressional Research Service report on war appropriations, Congress has appropriated $653 billion for Iraq and $172 billion in Afghanistan. (See Page 16. Afghanistan is listed as "OEF" for " Operation Enduring Freedom .") By that comparison, it would take more than a year's worth of Iraq spending to equal the total cost of operations in Afghanistan.
Biden is referring only to rebuilding costs in Afghanistan, which are a small fraction of total spending. The claim is a classic apples-to-oranges analogy, and it's unclear exactly where Biden is getting his price for oranges. The same CRS report lists all foreign aid and diplomatic spending in Afghanistan at $12.4 billion on Page 19, which is getting us closer; if we use fiscal year 2008 numbers for Iraq, when combat costs totalled $145 billion, three weeks comes out $8.4 billion. Biden is probably parsing out that $12.4 billion figure even further. This September 2008 CRS report on postwar policy in Afghanistan says that the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent just under $7 billion in the country (See Table 14 on Page 65).
Is Biden hoping viewers will gloss over his caveats and think he's making a legitimate, apples-to-apples comparison? He certainly fooled this guy . If so, it's bad idea—even in a nation plagued by innumeracy, the claim that we outspend total funding for Afghanistan in three weeks in Iraq fails the smell test. If this isn't the strategy, Biden could try a little harder to explain his reasoning. It didn't help that, when he repeated himself in the debate, he left out all the caveats: "Let me say that again. Three weeks in Iraq; seven years, seven years or six-and-a-half years in Afghanistan."