Pricing an Afghanistan troop buildup is no simple calculation
The White House estimate is twice the Pentagon's. Some see politics
By Christi Parsons and Julian E. Barnes
November 23, 2009
Reporting from Washington
President Obama measures the potential burden of a new war strategy in
Afghanistan, his administration is struggling to come up with even the
most dispassionate of predictions: the actual price tag for the
anticipated buildup of troops.
The calculations so far have produced a sweeping range. The Pentagon
publicly estimates it will cost $500,000 a year for every additional
service member sent to the war zone. Obama's budget experts size it up
at twice that much.
In coming up with such numbers, the White House and the military have
different priorities as well as different methods.
The president's advisors don't want to underestimate the cost and then
lose the public's faith. The Pentagon worries about sticker shock as
commanders push for an increase of as many as 40,000 troops.
Both sides emphasize that their figures are estimates and could change
-- in fact, a Pentagon comptroller assessment this month put the number
closer to that of Obama's Office of Management and Budget.
Still, budgeting and politics are entwined, and numbers can always
support more than one point of view.
The Bush White House minimized costs as it moved toward war. Obama is
weighing skeptically an escalation of a war he didn't launch. In his
campaign, Obama promised not to tuck war costs away, off federal budget
"Our resources in manpower, our resources in human lives and our
resources in money are not infinite," White House Press Secretary
Robert Gibbs said in an interview. "The notion that we wouldn't take
each of those things into account does not make a lot of sense to this
commander in chief."
All of those elements are under consideration as Obama wraps up a
review of war strategy. He is expected any week now to respond to
requests from his commander in the region for a strategy change and for
additional forces. The White House could announce an increase of 20,000
to 40,000 troops shortly after Thanksgiving.
During a recent session of his war council -- where one contingent has
questioned the wisdom of sending more troops -- Obama asked how much it
would cost to pay for the troops Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has
requested. The president sought an exact accounting, a request that
turned out to be more complicated than anticipated.
The Office of Management and Budget says adding 40,000 troops would
cost about $40 billion a year, or $1 million each. White House
officials included in their estimate everything they consider necessary
to wage war, including troop housing and equipment.
Inside and outside the Pentagon, some suspect an effort to undermine
support for a troop increase. "The large-scale message has been, 'This
is going to be hard and expensive,' " said Thomas Donnelly, an American
Enterprise Institute fellow and defense expert.
The Pentagon arrived at its much lower estimate by dividing its war
funding request by the number of troops throughout the region: 68,000
in Afghanistan and up to 95,000 in supporting roles elsewhere, such as
on nearby ships or in surrounding countries.
The Pentagon cost includes higher combat wages, extra aircraft hours
and other operations and maintenance costs, but omits such items as new
weapons purchases -- one-time costs that vary by year -- and support
equipment like spy satellites and anti-roadside-bomb technology.
The Pentagon also does not try to estimate costs of new bases for
But in a memo early this month, obtained by The Times' Washington
bureau, the Pentagon's own comptroller produced an estimate that broke
with the customary Defense formula and did include construction and
That memo said the yearly cost of a 40,000-troop increase would be $30
billion to $35 billion -- at least $750,000 a person. An increase of
20,000 would cost $20 billion to $25 billion annually, it said -- a
per-soldier cost equal to or greater than the White House estimate.
Even determining past spending is a fuzzy endeavor: Big chunks are paid
through emergency measures and are not calculated into the total.
Under questioning by the House Armed Services Committee this month, a
Congressional Budget Office expert couldn't say how much it costs to
run the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I find it astonishing that, eight years into this, we haven't nailed
it down with precision," another witness at the table, David Berteau,
director of the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group of the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, said later.
And yet the effort is necessary, said Stephen Daggett of the
Congressional Research Service: "If the budget is going to be
constrained, one of the questions we have to ask is whether we can
sustain the increases in forces."
Partisans of all stripes are likely to think first about intangibles,
including American tolerance for troop casualties and support for
sending new troops to Afghanistan.
Democratic leaders say money won't determine their level of commitment.
"You have to look at the mission first," said House Armed Services
Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.). "You absolutely start with
Obama's decision will not be based on money, his press secretary said.
"The president is going to pick the strategy that's most in our
national security interest," Gibbs said.
"Along the way, the health of our forces, the toll on lives and the
financial costs will all be discussed."
2009 Los Angeles Times