ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One factor in the president's deliberations over Afghanistan is the cost, not just in lives but in dollars. With the economy still struggling, there are questions about how much the U.S. can afford to spend in Afghanistan and for how long.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has that story.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here's a point everyone can agree on: the war in Afghanistan has already cost a lot of money.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Chairman, Foreign Relations Committee): The $243 billion price tag to date is staggering.

KELLY: That's Senator John Kerry who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, speaking this week. It turns out to be quite a challenge to calculate exactly how much the U.S. has spent on the war so far. The Congressional Research Service estimates that since the invasion of Afghanistan eight years ago, the U.S. has spent closer to 227 billion. The Pentagon puts the number at 156 billion. It all depends on what expenses you choose to include. And things like whether you count how much Congress has approved for the war versus what the Pentagon has actually spent.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, says one useful way to break down these huge numbers is to look at how much it costs to send just one soldier to war.

Dr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Defense Analyst, Brookings Institution): We are at a point where it's unbelievably costing us close to a million dollars in additional costs above and beyond salaries and the equipment that's already in the inventory, per soldier or Marine per year - a million dollars per soldier or Marine per year.

KELLY: For those of you wondering how that can possibly be right, remember that fighting in Afghanistan means fighting in one of the most remote regions on Earth.

Dov Zakheim is a former chief financial officer for the Defense Department. He says that $1 million price tag includes getting the soldier to Afghanistan, getting their equipment to Afghanistan, and then moving them around once they're there.

Dr. DOV ZAKHEIM (Former Chief Financial Officer, Defense Department): So, it's the cost of some allocation of the cost of the plane, some allocation of the cost of the fuel, some allocation to the cost of the pilots, the maintenance folks. You know, if you focus just on the soldier, it seems outrageous. But if you focus on the support for the soldier, that's not all that outrageous at all.

KELLY: The White House has used the million-dollar per soldier statistic in private briefings to Congress, and it has obvious implications. Namely, that if it costs a million dollars to send one soldier to war for a year, then sending 40,000 more troops � as the top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has urged � could cost an extra 40 billion per year on top of what the U.S. is already spending.

Now, we should note the Defense Department disputes this statistic and says it probably costs closer to half a million dollars to send a soldier to war for a year. A Pentagon spokesman adds, quote, �Any figure provided by our department or anyone else is speculative at best.�

What's beyond dispute is that a major troop buildup would get very expensive, very fast. But Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings says that other options, such as a scaled-back counterterrorism mission, might not be much cheaper. Sure, it would require fewer troops, he says, but it's not clear when they could ever go home.

Dr. O'HANLON: And so, you might be spending less per year but have to do it over a longer period of time.

KELLY: Ultimately, says former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim, wars just cost an awful lot of money. But he says there is a steep cost to failure in Afghanistan, too.

Dr. ZAKHEIM: We shouldn't be going to war or not going to war because it's going to cost us more or less. We should be choosing to make those decisions on the basis of the national interest of the United States.

KELLY: In other words, Zakheim argues, the president should focus on getting the war strategy right, and then figure out how to pay for it.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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