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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.

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Another defense analyst, Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has a slightly higher estimate at $441 billion. That jumps to $476.5 billion by including State Department expenses and immediate medical costs for veterans.

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But he says nothing can be read into the talk about 2014.

“The nice thing about 2014 politically is that by then you’ve either won, in which case the deadline doesn’t really matter anymore … or if you haven’t succeeded you are out any way,” Dr. Cordesman says.

Both Harrison and Cordesman caution that future cost estimates are difficult to make.

“There’s no good way of doing it,” says Harrison. “It depends on intensity of operations, the number of troops we have deployed, and it also depends on the mission that we give them.”

Some missions are more costly. For instance, the Pentagon has reportedly decided to dispatch tanks to Afghanistan for the first time in the war. That will add to the price tag given the fuel and transport costs.

“The enemy [also] gets a voice how much this is going to cost us,” says Harrison.

War spending in cost-conscious Washington

For its part, the Defense Department has not tipped its hand to the bean counters. Pentagon estimates for supplemental budget requests for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) – Afghanistan and Iraq – contain low placeholders of $50 billion annually starting in 2012. The request for 2011 is $159 billion.

The guessing game over the OCO does not factor in all the total costs of a war. One of the biggest unknowns is the cost of medical care for veterans decades down the line. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have argued that health care for Iraq war veterans will top $600 billion. Other costs beyond operations, like debt servicing and macroeconomic factors, could drive that war’s total cost over $3 trillion.

In Afghanistan, the US will also be paying for many years to support the Afghan security forces that it trains because their cost exceeds Kabul’s revenues.

But focusing solely on the OCO costs, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost a combined $1.1 trillion to date. Adjusting for inflation, that’s more than any US conflict except World War II.

Cordesman points out that as a percentage of GDP, current defense spending and war costs are historically low. Iraq and Afghanistan together consume about 1.2 percent of America's GDP. By contrast, in their peak years of conflict, World War II consumed 35.8 percent of American GDP and the Vietnam War consumed 2.3 percent of GDP.

Harrison, too, says the $125 billion over four years is nowhere near the scale of the US's annual trillion-plus deficit.

But others say war spending will heat up as a topic in deficit-conscious Washington – particularly when the Pentagon has to put forth real numbers early next year rather than placeholders for 2012 war spending.

“When that happens in a Congress where they are counting every penny – or I guess every billion – to suddenly show up and say we kind of misestimated this, it’s going to be triple what we said, that’s going to be embarrassing to say,” says Charles Knight, co-director Project on Defense Alternatives.

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