President Obama conducted his ninth war council on Afghanistan shortly before Thanksgiving with a fresh face at the table: Peter Orszag, head of the Office of Management and Budget. The appearance of Obama's chief bookkeeper at what's likely to be the final Afghan war-cabinet meeting signals growing concern over the cost of a new war plan expected to include sending some 30,000 more troops into the fight.
With the Afghan war now into its ninth year, Obama is facing increasing pressure from Congress to justify its cost. Members of his own party are talking of a war tax, underscoring their opposition to reinforcing the 68,000 U.S. troops now there. "If this war is important enough to expand and fight, then it ought to be important enough to pay for," says Wisconsin Representative David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
How much the extra troops would cost is in dispute. Orszag pegs it at $1 million per soldier per year, which works out to an additional $30 billion a year for 30,000 more troops. The Pentagon says it's half that. But a new study by consulting firm Deloitte makes clear that fighting inside a landlocked country where the Taliban has shut down much of the meager road network has drastically inflated even routine costs. The average U.S. trooper in Afghanistan requires 22 gal. (83 L) of fuel a day--but the cost of buying a gallon of fuel and shipping it to the deepest corners of the country averages $45. That's nearly $1,000 a day per soldier.
Beyond the financial cost is the danger: more troops would need more fuel, which would require sending more supply convoys into harm's way. The study warns that stepped-up operations in Afghanistan could more than double the 5,400 U.S. casualties already suffered there (including 927 killed) by 2014.
That's one reason Obama may face such a tough sales job when he rolls out his Afghan strategy after nearly three months of debate. Following Obama's expected speech to the nation about his plan, General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will testify before Congress with other members of Obama's national-security team. They'll have to convince skeptical Americans--as well as NATO allies at a Dec. 7 meeting--that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a solid partner in the war effort. That's a daunting task given the allegations of corruption enveloping him, including a disputed August election that gave him a second five-year term.
Back on Capitol Hill, Obey is concerned that increased spending for Afghanistan could doom Obama's efforts to improve the U.S. economy. He says the domestic initiatives of both Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson stalled because of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Says Obey: "We don't want that to happen again."