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Calculating The Cost Of The War In Afghanistan

Above: A Marine with Fox Company sits in the dust and mud of the flooded entrance to Patrol Base Barcha in the Helmand River valley in southern Afghanistan.

One of the factors President Obama must weigh as he decides whether to send more troops to Afghanistan is the cost — not just in lives, but in dollars. With the economy still struggling, questions exist about how much the U.S. can afford to spend in Afghanistan — and for how long.

Earlier this week, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the war in Afghanistan had already cost a "staggering" $243 billion.

In fact, it is a challenge to calculate exactly how much the U.S. has spent on the war so far.

The Congressional Research Service estimates that since the invasion of Afghanistan eight years ago, the U.S. has spent closer to $227 billion. The Pentagon puts the number at $156 billion.

The variables include which expenses are actually included and whether the total relies on how much Congress has approved for the war compared with what the Pentagon has actually spent.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, says one useful way to break down these huge numbers is to look at how much it costs to send just one soldier to war.

"We are at a point where it's unbelievably costing us close to a million dollars, in additional costs — above and beyond salaries and the equipment that's already in the inventory — per soldier or Marine per year," he says.

Fighting in Afghanistan means fighting in one of the most remote regions on Earth, and that plays a large role in the seemingly astronomical figure.

Dov Zakheim, a former chief financial officer for the Defense Department, says the $1 million price tag includes getting the soldier to Afghanistan, getting his equipment to Afghanistan, and moving the soldier around once in the country.

"So, it's the cost of some allocation of the cost of the plane, some allocation of the cost of the fuel, some allocation of the cost of the pilots, the maintenance folks," Zakheim explains. "If you focus just on the soldier, it seems outrageous. But if you focus on the support for the soldier — that's not all that outrageous at all."

The White House has used the $1 million per soldier statistic in private briefings to Congress, and that has obvious implications. If it costs $1 million to send one soldier to war for a year, then sending 40,000 more troops — as the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has urged — could cost an extra $40 billion per year, on top of what the U.S. is already spending.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department disputes the $1 million figure and says it probably costs closer to $500,000 to send a soldier to war for a year. A Pentagon spokesman adds that any figure provided by the Defense Department or other sources is "speculative at best."

What is beyond dispute is that a major troop buildup would get very expensive, very fast.

But O'Hanlon of Brookings says that other options — such as a scaled-back, counterterrorism mission — might not be much cheaper. It would require fewer troops, he says, but it's not clear when they could ever go home. As a result, he says, the government may spend less per year — but need to do so over a longer period of time.

Ultimately, says Zakheim, the former Pentagon official, wars simply cost an "awful lot of money."

But he says there is a steep cost to failure in Afghanistan, too. "We shouldn't be going to war or not going to war because it's going to cost us more or less. We should be choosing to make those decisions on the basis of the national interest of the United States," he says.

In other words, Zakheim argues, the president should focus on getting the war strategy right, and then figure out how to pay for it.

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