Obama Weighs the Cost of an Afghan Surge

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David Furst / AFP / Getty

Afghan National Army soldiers set out with U.S. Marines from a base in Farah province, southern Afghanistan

There was a new face at the table when President Barack Obama conducted his ninth war council on Afghanistan shortly before Thanksgiving: Peter Orszag, head of the Office of Management and Budget. And the appearance of the Administration's chief bookkeeper at what is likely to be the final meeting of a war cabinet assembled to make the key decisions on the future of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan sends a signal of growing concern over the cost of sending some 30,000 more troops into the fight.

The war is now in its ninth year, and public support is waning. But Obama on Tuesday repeated his belief that neither al-Qaeda nor its allies can be permitted to flourish in Afghanistan. "We are going to dismantle and degrade their capabilities and ultimately dismantle and destroy their networks," he said. "It is my intention to finish the job."

Obama's fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill appear to have other ideas, however, and are talking of levying a war tax to highlight their opposition to reinforcing the 68,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. "If this war is important enough to expand and fight, then it ought to be important enough to pay for," Representative David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, tells TIME. "If we don't, we run the risk of devouring every dollar that would otherwise be used to rebuild our own economy." He argues that the domestic initiatives of both Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson stalled because of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. "We don't want that to happen again," Obey says.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also favors a tax to cover the war's cost. While the idea has little chance of passing in either chamber, the fact that it has been proposed demonstrates the depth of opposition among some Democrats to continuing the war. And the pressure on Obama from Capitol Hill is likely to grow if sending reinforcements doesn't yield quick progress on the ground.

Just how much putting extra troops in Afghanistan will cost is in dispute. Orszag pegs it at $1 million per soldier per year ($30 billion annually for 30,000 more troops), which is twice as much as the Pentagon's figure. The number varies depending on how many new weapons and other materiel are cranked into the calculation. But a new study underscores the extra costs of fighting in a landlocked country where the Taliban has shut down much of the meager road network. For example, every U.S. soldier in Afghanistan requires 22 gallons of fuel a day — and the cost of a gallon of gas bought and shipped to the deepest corners of Afghanistan averages $45. A study by the international accounting firm Deloitte puts the cost of fuel for the additional troops at nearly $1,000 a day per soldier — more than $350,000 per year.

Beyond the financial cost of getting fuel to the thirsty trucks and aircraft is the danger that comes from tanker trucks traveling along increasingly heavily mined roads. More troops will need more fuel, which will require sending more fuel convoys into harm's way. The study warns that stepped-up operations in Afghanistan could lead, by 2014, to more than double the 5,400 U.S. casualties (including 927 killed) so far.

The escalating cost in blood and treasure of a war that has already cost America $150 billion and has no clear end in sight is the reason Obama faces a tough sales job when he finally rolls out his Afghan strategy next week after nearly three months of debate. Following the President's anticipated speech to the nation, General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will testify before Congress along with other Obama national-security heavyweights. 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 in light of allegations of corruption enveloping him, including the disputed August election that gave him a second five-year term.

The sales job, at least in terms of cost, might be eased by Orszag's presence at that latest Situation Room session. "Wars have a way of crushing sound budgeting," says Gordon Adams, who handled the Office of Management and Budget's military account during the Clinton Administration. "It's a good idea to have the budget chief around when you decide to do that — especially if you have to sell it to a reluctant majority on the Hill."