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New Afghan war plans could cost US taxpayers an extra $125 billion

At the NATO summit, President Obama's push to soften troop withdrawal deadlines could bring remaining war costs to $413 billion, according to one independent analyst.

By Staff writer / November 19, 2010

In this Sept. 29 photo, a girl walks past a US Marine, as he patrols through a field in Marjah, southern Afghanistan. As leaders at the NATO summit in Lisbon meet this weekend to discuss strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama pushes to soften troop withdrawal deadlines.

Todd Pitman/AP/File

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New Delhi

As leaders at the NATO summit in Lisbon meet this weekend to discuss strategy in Afghanistan, US war planners have been signaling that troop withdrawals set to begin in 2011 will be mostly symbolic and that the handover to Afghan forces in 2014 is “aspirational.”

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Such could cost American taxpayers handsomely at a time when deficit cutting has gripped Washington. According to one estimate, softening those deadlines could add at least $125 billion in war spending – not including long-term costs like debt servicing and health care for veterans.

“I don’t think anyone is seriously talking about cutting war funding as a way of handling the deficit,” says Todd Harrison, a defense funding expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But higher war costs “could hurt the base defense budget [and] the rest of the discretionary budget.”

A shift in US deadlines

Currently there are some 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, which includes the 30,000 troop surge announced by President Obama in December 2009. At that time, the president also said the US would “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”

Such was interpreted by many Americans and Afghans to be a significant withdrawal in 2011. In recent months, with the situation in Afghanistan showing few signs of stabilizing, US officials have focused more on 2014 as the date for withdrawal.

Speaking at the NATO summit in Lisbon today, Mr. Obama described the timeline as “a transition to Afghan responsibility beginning in 2011 with Afghan forces taking the lead for security across Afghanistan by 2014.”

But the Pentagon on Thursday said the goal of handing over security duties to the Afghans in 2014 was “aspirational.”

“Although the hope is, the goal is, to have Afghan security forces in the lead over the preponderance of the country by then, it does not necessarily mean that ... everywhere in the country they will necessarily be in the lead,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

Crunching the numbers

So how much extra would it cost if the bulk of the withdrawal starts rather than finishes around 2014? About $125 billion, says Mr. Harrison at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, at that's just through 2014. He uses two different troop level scenarios – one high, and one low. He calculates costs based $1.1 million per soldier per year, which reflects the five-year average in Afghanistan.

The lower cost – $288 billion – assumes that the troops involved in Obama’s surge would be withdrawn by 2012, and that by the end of 2014 only 30,000 US troops would remain. The higher cost – $413 billion – assumes no drawdown will happen until 2013, and 70,000 US troops would remain by the end of 2014. The difference: $125 billion.

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