Canada's efforts in Afghanistan will carry a total price tag of about $14-billion to $18-billion by the time troops are withdrawn in 2011, about $1,500 extra for every household in Canada, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page reported today.
Mr. Page's report says the real extra cost of the Canadian military mission - over and above what would have been spent for the upkeep of the military anyway - is billions more than Ottawa has estimated, and perhaps almost twice as high.
Ottawa has so far reported that the extra "incremental" cost for the military mission alone, to the end of the 2007-08 fiscal year, has been about $3.8-billion. Mr. Page says it has been somewhere between $5.85-billion and $7.45-billion.
In a report that has sparked anticipation from political parties during the election campaign, Mr. Page concludes that the costs that the Department of National Defence has reported to Parliament are not the same as those it records on its internal books. It finds that the way government accounts for spending makes it hard to put a firm, separate price tag on the Afghan mission.
Speaking later Thursday, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said the mission was clearly an expensive one, but the expense was necessary.
"We've been clear that the cost of this is high," Mr. Harper said. "We are doing important work there as part of an international effort. We are certainly not alone in spending money.
"When we have men and women in uniform, diplomats and development workers who are putting their lives on the line, the government will spend what is necessary to make sure they are safe and successful."
But Liberal Leader Stephane Dion told press in Halifax that the report showed there was a "false transparency" over Afghanistan.
"Stephen Harper again failed to be transparent and accountable to Canadians," Mr. Dion said in a scrum after speaking to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.
NDP Leader Jack Layton blasted both Liberals and Conservative for the projected cost of the Afghans mission and accused both his political opponents of hiding the truth.
"The costs of the war are dramatically higher than the Harper government has been telling Canadians," Mr. Layton said of the Conservative government during a campaign stop in Sudbury, Ont.
"The costs are billions of dollars more. And whether it was the Liberals who took us into the war, the Conservatives who extended the war with the help of the Liberals, they haven't been straight up with Canadians about the costs."
Mr. Page's chief conclusion is that parliamentarians who vote on spending for the Afghanistan mission cannot possibly have a clear idea of what it is being spent on what operations are really costing.
And his officials said that government departments did not provide information the Parliamentary Budget Office requested to make its work more precise - like the actual number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and what equipment is there.
"Although Canada is in the seventh year of the Afghanistan mission, Parliament and Canadians have not been provided with accurate and comprehensive departmental cost estimates," Mr. Page said.
The figures the Department of National Defence has reported for its actual extra spending for the Afghanistan mission do not match those it has in its internal books, the report found. The department's reports to parliament are two years, and more than $2-billion, behind its internal books, and include different amounts for what it actually spent on its operations in the field.
Military missions consistently exceed the planned cost reported by the government, the report found.
Mr. Page's report indicate that the Canadian military mission has cost more to date than the government has reported, largely because his office, unlike the government, includes the huge cost of extra wear and tear on military equipment deployed in Afghanistan.
Mr. Page's report concludes that the "incremental" costs of the military mission - the extra cost of being in Afghanistan over and above what would be spent anyway - have run between $5.9-billion and $7.4-billion between 2001 and 2008. Once all costs, including veterans' benefits and foreign aid are included, the total is $7.7-billion to $10.5-billion.
If Canadian troop levels remain the same, the military mission will cost another $5.7-billion by 2011, the report concludes. And the total costs will rise to somewhere between $13.9-billion and $18.1-billion, the report concludes.
(The estimates are stated as a number that could vary by as much as $4 billion largely because it relies on estimates for how much of the military's equipment is deployed, and extra wear and tear.)
One federal government estimate has indicated that the "full costs" of the war to date - including aid and diplomacy - have been $8.1-billion, including things such as salaries that would have been paid to soldiers even if they had remained on a base in Canada.
Mr. Page's report argues that such estimates are not very useful, but clearly implies that it is far too low anyway. It estimates that the extra, "incremental" costs of the mission alone have already been $7.6-billion to $10.47-billion.
with files from Steven Chase, Jane Taber and Gloria Galloway