Afghan strategy debate exposes split over price

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s review of war strategy in Afghanistan not only has exposed differences between his political and military advisers over how many troops to send, but also what it will cost.

War spending in Afghanistan has more than doubled over the last year, reaching $6.7 billion in June alone, and sticker shock could fuel congressional opposition to another buildup.

The Pentagon has said it likely will need emergency funding for the war but that too many questions remain unanswered to estimate how much.

Rough estimates cited by lawmakers and budget analysts top $40 billion, but competing cost estimates for more troops have stoked confusion on an issue that could have implications for Obama in the run-up to next year’s congressional elections.

The White House budget office estimates that it will cost about $1 million for each additional soldier sent to Afghanistan. That means a 30,000-40,000 troop surge, the number favored by several of Obama’s top national security and military advisers, would amount to $30 billion to $40 billion a year.

But the Pentagon’s comptroller estimates the operating cost of deploying and sustaining one additional troop for a full year in Afghanistan would be half that, at $500,000.

Officials said Obama has asked for more detailed cost breakdowns, as well as timelines for when Afghan security forces could take over for U.S. forces, before deciding on options ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 more troops.

Georgetown University military analyst Christine Fair said the fact that officials are at odds over costs is indicative of the broader discord over war objectives.

“It reflects the political climate. The leadership is confused, we’re broke and most Americans don’t know why we’re there,” Fair said.

Troop increase skeptics include Vice President Joe Biden, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and key domestic advisers.

Any supplemental financing would come on top of the $130 billion that Congress has authorized for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for the fiscal year that started on October 1.


Budget experts say putting a precise price tag on a proposed troop increase at this stage in the review process is virtually impossible.

Costs depend on a number of factors that have yet to be decided, such as what types of units will be deployed. Helicopter squadrons, for example, are far more expensive than infantry units.

The $1 million estimate used by the White House Office of Management and Budget appears to include costs tied to supplying added troops with more intelligence and new, heavily armored vehicles to reduce the threat from roadside bombs.

The Pentagon comptroller’s $500,000 estimate includes pay, as well as costs associated with bringing in equipment that a soldier would use, such as tanks, Humvees, transport planes and helicopters.

But the Pentagon excluded what it deems more “speculative” items, such as costs associated with building housing and roads, replacing lost equipment and intelligence gathering, officials said.

Plans to rapidly expand the size of the Afghan national army and police could add tens of billions of dollars to the price tag in coming years.

Growing public concerns about adding to the record $1.4 trillion U.S. budget deficit could make another emergency war supplemental a political liability for Obama.

The administration of former President George W. Bush was widely criticized for using such requests to fund the wars. Both Democrats and Republicans said such urgent requests face less scrutiny than the regular budget.

Obama pledged to put an end to the practice but asked Congress in April for an extra $83.4 billion to fund the wars, citing threats from al Qaeda and a resurgent Taliban. Obama said at the time that the supplemental was “the last planned.”

Rising war costs in Afghanistan reflect a hike in troops over the last year -- from 30,000 to 68,000 -- as well as spending on everything from helicopters and armored vehicles to medical care for the wounded, military officials said. There are also more than 40,000 allied troops in Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Alister Bull, editing by Sue Pleming and Eric Walsh