Paying for war
How to escalate in Afghanistan without adding to the national debt

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

IF PRESIDENT Obama proposes a troop increase for Afghanistan, one of the first objections raised will be that of cost. Liberal Democrats not usually known as deficit hawks have been decrying any escalation of the war as unaffordable. Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) recently claimed that the Afghan war would cost as much over the next decade as the House's health-care bill -- about $900 billion -- and proposed paying for it with an income tax surcharge. "Ain't going to be no money for nothing if we pour it all into Afghanistan," the House defense appropriations chair told CNN.

We're ready to support a tax increase to pay for the war. But first it's worth correcting Mr. Obey's distortions. So far $60 billion is budgeted for Afghanistan in the next year. Mr. Obama will probably propose sending 30,000 more troops, and White House officials have been estimating that every 1,000 will cost $1 billion. But the Pentagon says the price will be half that much and that any troop escalation will occur gradually over the next year and a half.

So the actual cost of the troop increase next year will almost certainly be less than the $30 billion reduction in spending that the administration expects this year in Iraq because of planned troop withdrawals. Even if all the fresh forces remain in Afghanistan for several years, by 2012 total war spending would be half the $180 billion of 2008. Mr. Obey's comparison to health care notwithstanding, no one is projecting a decade of unreduced Afghanistan costs; and entitlement programs, unlike war costs, never disappear.

But let's accept that Mr. Obey and other congressional leaders are serious about paying for the war. An income tax surcharge hardly seems like the right approach, since the House already has voted to tax high incomes to pay for health care, and raising the income taxes of middle-class families makes little sense when the nation is struggling to recover from a recession. But Congress could adopt the measure it took in 1940 to help pay for World War II, and again in 1951, when money was needed for the Korean War: an increase in the gasoline tax.

As we have pointed out before, the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been raised since 1993 and is long overdue for an increase. Two federal commissions have proposed one in the past couple of years. In January the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission said its recommended hike of 10 cents a gallon for gasoline and 15 cents for diesel would raise $20 billion a year.

A 40-cent increase over five years, proposed by a second federal commission, would cover most or all of the war's costs and still leave gasoline prices well short of where they were in the summer of 2008. Those months showed that higher prices could do much to reduce U.S. carbon emissions -- another national imperative. While most proponents of a higher gasoline tax want to use the money for highway infrastructure, or refund it to taxpayers, Congress could shift funding to those purposes once the U.S. mission in Afghanistan begins to wind down.

We don't expect a rush to embrace this idea: So far proponents of paying for the war in Afghanistan heavily overlap with those who want to end it. But if Mr. Obey -- or Mr. Obama -- believes that wars should be governed by the pay-as-you-go principle, a means to cover this one is readily available.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company