As President Obama makes his final decision on a schedule for drawing down the number of troops in Afghanistan, members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, meeting in Baltimore, voted overwhelmingly on Monday to urge him to end the wars there and in Iraq as quickly as possible. Although the resolution was backed by the anti-war group Code Pink and others, the reason it got such widespread support was not an expression of pacifism but of priorities. The mayors urged President Obama to bring the troops home as quickly as possible – and to reinvest the billions we are spending overseas to "meet vital human needs, promote job creation, rebuild our infrastructure, aid municipal and state governments, and develop a new economy based upon renewable, sustainable energy and reduce the federal debt."
The idea that the $126 billion a year we're spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could be pumped back into support for America's cities is something of a pipe dream; peace dividends have a way of failing to materialize. We're borrowing the money to fight in these conflicts as it is, and given the political realities in Washington, there is little chance that the mayors' wishes will come true. But the resolution does underscore the tremendous costs of these two wars and the extent to which they have handicapped our ability to address pressing needs at home.
President Obama is slated to announce his decision on how many troops he will bring home from Afghanistan and how quickly in a speech Wednesday night. The latest reports suggest that he will announce the withdrawal of the 30,000 service members sent there as part of the surge but that the timing of the withdrawals is still undetermined. The White House has made clear that the president is weighing national security considerations, the impact of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the ability of the Afghan government and security forces to maintain the gains we have fought for.
However, he would do well to also heed the voices of America's mayors and to at least add into the calculations the costs and benefits we can expect from our strategic options in Afghanistan – and the opportunity costs of pouring money into a corruption-plagued nation halfway across the world. After 10 years of war and trillions invested in fighting, training and rebuilding, it is unclear whether we will ever be able to produce a peaceful, stable, democratic Afghanistan. But at a time when American cities are being forced to lay off teachers, police officers and fire fighters, we know what that kind of investment would produce here.