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What's real price tag on war in Afghanistan?

November 16, 2009 |  8:37 am

Flag draped coffin of U.S. soldier returns to Dover Air Base

The casualties are sobering --  nearly 1,500 deaths to date among U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

So are the stakes -- the prospect of a Taliban resurgence that likely would reverse recent gains for women and girls and the destabilization of neighboring Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons and Al Qaeda cells.

But as President Obama weighs a decision on whether to deploy more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, a new front in the debate is emerging in Washington -- the financial costs.

The White House Budget Office estimates that it will cost about $1 million for each additional soldier sent to Afghanistan. So, a surge of 30,000 to 40,000 troops -- which is what Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal is recommending -- would add $30 billion to $40 billion a year to the deficit.

At the Pentagon, the comptroller disagrees, estimating the cost of deploying and maintaining one soldier in Afghanistan for a full year  at $500,000. So, bottom line would be $15 billion to $20 billion.

Obama recently made reference to the costs as one of the factors in his decision. In Japan on Friday, on the first stop of his eight-day visit to Asia, Obama said he was taking his time to deliberate because he wanted to make sure that "when I send young men and women into war, and I devote billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money, that it's making us safer." With costs and security in mind, he added, "our goal here ultimately has to be for the Afghan people to be able to be in a position to provide their own security. ...The United States cannot be engaged in an open-ended commitment."

An escalation in military spending could put Obama in the awkward position of winning Republican votes for the budget while losing Democratic ones for the policy. And a drain on the nation's bottom line also could imperil domestic programs favored by the White House.

A new surge, said Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, would "drain the spirit of the country ... as well as drain the U.S. Treasury, it would devour virtually any other priorities that the president or anyone in Congress had."

The added red ink is unlikely to make the decision any easier -- either for Obama or the public.

"It reflects the political climate," Georgetown University military analyst Christine Fair told Reuters. "The leadership is confused, we're broke, and most Americans don't know why we're there."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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