Cost of Afghan War Explodes

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December 2, 2009
By Richard Wolf
USA Today

WASHINGTON — President Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan means more red ink for a nation reeling from a $12 trillion debt:

•It will make the war in Afghanistan far more costly next year than the Iraq war, according to Pentagon budget estimates.

•It will cause the cost of the two wars since 2001 to top $1 trillion within the next few months, according to the Congressional Research Service.

•It's likely to require another supplemental spending bill next year, lawmakers say — something Obama wanted to avoid. That will reignite the debate over whether the cost of the wars should be paid for with tax increases or spending cuts, rather than added to the $1.4 trillion deficit.

"You can no longer deficit-finance everything," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "It is time to figure out how to pay for it."

Since 2005, the annual cost to support one U.S. servicemember in Afghanistan averaged more than $1.1 million, twice the amount in Iraq, according to the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The situation is complicated by Afghanistan's poor road system, which increases the need for air and land convoy protection and raises fuel consumption.

"The lack of infrastructure is making it much more difficult for us and much more costly," says Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the center.

Going into the 2010 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, more than $900 billion had been budgeted for military and diplomatic operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions in the war on terrorism. Even before Obama's latest plan, the administration had requested about $140 billion for fiscal 2010, which would bring the total above $1 trillion.

The Pentagon's military funding request for the first time since the Iraq invasion was larger for Afghanistan — $65 billion — than for Iraq —$61 billion. Obama's troop increase could add $30 billion or more to Afghanistan.

"We simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars," Obama said. "I will work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit."

After World War II, Iraq has become the nation's second-most expensive war, surpassing Vietnam. Afghanistan ranks sixth, behind Korea and World War I, but its projected new costs will move it past those conflicts by 2011, according to Congressional Research Service data.

Some lawmakers are demanding the new troops be paid for. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has suggested adding a progressive tax starting at 1% on Americans who earn more than $30,000 a year. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's election rival, wants a freeze on most other spending. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wants to take the money from the $787 billion stimulus package passed in February.

"It would be unwise to raise taxes to pay for a war at a time of economic downturn, but it should be paid for over time," says Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., top Republican on the House Budget Committee, says the debate about paying for the wars is misplaced. "You've got to prioritize between guns and butter, and we've been spending an awful lot of money on butter around here lately," he says.