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In this war, even the peace dividend will cost you


The past is gone, you can't get back money you've already spent -- what's done is done. The war in Afghanistan may not get one of the good chapters in future histories of the United States, but at least it's almost over, right?

That seems to be the sense of many Americans as next week's NATO summit in Chicago approaches. By overwhelming margins, the nation wants the war to end, and unlike Iraq, it doesn't even seem to want consolation prizes such as repayments or permanent bases. As you've read here before, though, the U.S. is locked into Afghanistan for at least  another 12 years, including the transfer of authority to Kabul and then the longer-term training and counterterrorism agreement President Obama announced.

So although Obama will do his utmost to sell voters on the narrative that he "ended" the war, not only will American involvement outlast even his potential second term, Americans will still be paying for it that whole time. (And this does not count the service on the debt the U.S. raised to finance it all.)

One picture of how much they'll pay got a little clearer Thursday in a report from the Associated Press that gave a peak into the approximate breakdown for the long-term costs of sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces after the NATO withdrawal. We've heard Afghan President Hamid Karzai say before that he needs more than $4 billion per year for his army and police over that 10 year postwar period, and AP's Anne Gearan had a breakdown of how that could work out:

U.S. officials have had their tin cups out for months. Marc Grossman, the top State Department official for Afghanistan, recently hit up European nations, and others are lobbying Russia, Central Asian and Asian nations. U.S. officials are asking for pledges to sustain an Afghan force of roughly 230,000 during the first three years after the NATO-led international force departs.

The argument is fairly straightforward. Even $4 billion a year to prop up the Afghan military is cheaper than the cost of maintaining a foreign army in Afghanistan, and a lot easier for war-weary publics to swallow. Some of the requests appear to be largely symbolic. For example, U.S. officials asked some of Afghanistan's neighbors for initial pledges of about $5 million annually, said Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute in Washington.

"That's nothing, but it's something, too," Weitz said, since it serves the diplomatic goal of showing broad support for Afghan stability.

Afghanistan has said it will contribute $500 million toward its own army. The goal is $2.3 billion from the U.S. and nations outside the fighting coalition, and $1.3 billion from coalition nations other than the U.S.

Not bad at all, considering the $641 billion or so the U.S. has already spent in Afghanistan, although there'll be many other ongoing costs, as well: The Army and Marine Corps are counting on continued "overseas contingency account" funding to reset as they withdraw; the U.S. will have to pay separately for the contingent of its own troops it leaves in Afghanistan, say about 20,000; and there'll be costs for the withdrawal itself. Those also got a little clearer this week with news from Pakistan that it was willing to re-open its overland supply routes -- for a price.

Saeed Shah of McClatchy reported that Pakistan and the U.S. are said to be close to announcing the supply lines will re-open -- in fact, that could happen next week in Chicago, in a nice smiley-grippy ceremony for the cameras -- at a new, higher scale. Shah quoted officials in Islamabad who said the new price could be about $1 million per day; other reports have said the U.S. could need to pay about $5,000 for every truck. The figures in his story only refer to supplies traveling from the port of Karachi north into Afghanistan, though. It's unclear whether Pakistan would charge separately for vehicles moving south to Karachi as part of the Army's planned "retrograde." Even if it did, that might still be cheaper than trying to withdraw from Afghanistan using only the northern distribution network, based on what Army logisticians have said.

The bottom line? Just as Congress has been willing to pay whatever it took to fight in Afghanistan, Americans may be willing to pay whatever it takes to get out.

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