The U.S. military is on track to spend $113 billion on its operations in Afghanistan this fiscal year, and it is seeking $107 billion for the next. To many of the president’s civilian advisers, that price is too high, given a wide federal budget gap that will require further cuts to domestic programs and increased deficit spending. Growing doubts about the need for such a broad nation-building mission there in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death have only sharpened that view.
“Where we’re at right now is simply not sustainable,” said one senior administration official, who, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.
Civilian advisers, who do not want to be seen as unwilling to pay for the war, are expected to frame their cost concerns in questions about the breadth of U.S. operations — arguing that the troop surge Obama authorized in 2009 has achieved many of its goals — instead of directly tackling money matters. When the president’s war cabinet evaluates troop-withdrawal options in the next few weeks presented by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander, “it’s not like each of them will have price tags next to them,” the official said. But “it’s certainly going to shape how most of the civilians look at this.”
The question of cost will have a far greater impact on the eventual decision than it did during the White House debate about the Afghan surge in late 2009. The heightened fiscal pressures, coupled with bin Laden’s killing four weeks ago, could shift the balance of power in the Situation Room toward Vice President Biden and other civilians who had been skeptical of the surge and favor a faster troop drawdown than top commanders would prefer.
“Money is the new 800-pound gorilla,” said another senior administration official involved in Afghanistan policy, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It shifts the debate from ‘Is the strategy working?’ to ‘Can we afford this?’ And when you view it that way, the scope of the mission that we have now is far, far less defensible.”
Military and civilian officials agree that the cost of the Afghan mission is staggering. The amount per deployed service member in Afghanistan, which the administration estimates at $1 million per year, is significantly higher than it was in Iraq because fuel and other supplies must be trucked into the landlocked nation, often through circuitous routes. Bases, meanwhile, have to be built from scratch.
The U.S.-led effort to create a new national army, which Afghanistan never had, already has consumed more than $28 billion. The Pentagon wants $12.8 billion for fiscal 2012 — the largest single line item in next year’s Defense Department budget request — to continue training and equipping Afghan soldiers.