To be sure, the war is not cheap. The Congressional Research Service puts U.S. costs through this summer at around $444 billion since 2001. That includes some $25 billion for Afghan security forces and $25 billion in economic development efforts. Current strategy implies another year (starting Oct. 1) of total American costs over $100 billion. It is realistic to expect that fiscal 2013 costs might be $75 billion and 2014 costs around $50 billion, as NATO prepares to hand off responsibility to the Afghan government nationwide and dramatically reduce its presence. More modest annual costs thereafter would still push the combined American investment over $700 billion, rivaling the prices of the wars in Korea and Iraq.
That’s a lot of money. But next to a national debt of $14 trillion, it hardly looks astronomical. And the costs look even more reasonable measured against the costs of defeat — defined as a Taliban takeover of at least southern Afghanistan; and associated sanctuaries for the world’s worst terrorist groups, which still want to strike American cities, gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and provoke another India-Pakistan war. Measured against the likely alternative costs, at this point the incremental cost of sustaining the current strategy to its logical conclusion is within reason. We’re already committed to spending $444 billion; no big savings are feasible this summer regardless of the president’s July decision. Even adopting a “counterterrorism plus” strategy similar to what the vice president purportedly favors would keep an average of perhaps 50,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the coming year, 30,000 the following year and 20,000 in the country thereafter, indefinitely. By the rule of thumb that keeping an American soldier in Afghanistan for a year costs about $1 million, the cumulative expenses approach $600 billion by 2016 or so.