Will We Pay for the Escalation in Afghanistan?

President Obama will send an additional 34,000* troops to fight in Afghanistan, according to the New York Times. In a speech tonight he will defend his decision to the American people. This being a blog about business and economics, I don't have much to say about this strategy's likelihood to "succeed," but I do have a point to make about the cost of war.

War is really expensive, and the US government is coming off a $1.4 trillion debt in FY2009. The White House thinks each additional soldier in Afghanistan costs about $1 million. The Pentagon thinks the actual cost is half that number. (Why would the White House artificially inflate the cost of a war it intends on selling? I don't know.) But let's split the difference and say each soldier costs $750,000 a year. The Washington Post crunches the numbers:

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 ... no one is projecting a decade of unreduced Afghanistan costs; and entitlement programs, unlike war costs, never disappear.

The Post suggests that we levy a gasoline tax of 10 cents a gallon for gasoline and 15 cents for diesel to raise up to $20 billion additional dollars per year. I like the idea of a gas tax -- it's responsible social policy to nudge Americans away from gas imports and it's responsible climate policy to price our carbon footprint -- but it's hard to imagine a more politically unpalatable source of revenue for the government. Hey America, please pay more at the pump to fund an escalation in this war you're tired of fighting. Readers of this blog know that I support raising taxes not only to pay for the soldiers we've yet to send, but to pay for the soldiers we have already sent, in addition to the entitlements we've already promised, and the programs we've already committed to funding. But I can't imagine Congress has the energy to pass both a gas tax and cap and trade in an election year.

A final, broader point. It's interesting that Obama was overwhelmingly elected on a platform that included universal health care reform and an escalation in Afghanistan. Today both of those issues are polling under 50%. It's been a long year for the White House, and the road to 2010 is still uphill.

*The AP has revised this number to 30,000 troops.