US cost of war at least $3.7 trillion and counting

NEW YORK, (Reuters) – When President Barack Obama  cited cost as a reason to bring troops home from Afghanistan,  he referred to a $1 trillion price tag for America’s wars.

Staggering as it is, that figure grossly underestimates the  total cost of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the  U.S. Treasury and ignores more imposing costs yet to come,  according to a study released yesterday.

The final bill will run at least $3.7 trillion and could  reach as high as $4.4 trillion, according to the research  project “Costs of War” by Brown University’s Watson Institute  for International Studies. (
In the 10 years since U.S. troops went into Afghanistan to  root out the al Qaeda leaders behind the Sept. 11, 2001,  attacks, spending on the conflicts totaled $2.3 trillion to  $2.7 trillion.

Those numbers will continue to soar when considering often  overlooked costs such as long-term obligations to wounded  veterans and projected war spending from 2012 through 2020. The  estimates do not include at least $1 trillion more in interest  payments coming due and many billions more in expenses that  cannot be counted, according to the study.

The White House says the total amount appropriated for  war-related activities of the Department of Defense,  intelligence and State Department since 2001 is about $1.3  trillion, and that would rise to nearly $1.4 trillion in 2012.
Researchers with the Watson Institute say that type of  accounting is common but too narrow to measure the real costs.

In human terms, 224,000 to 258,000 people have died  directly from warfare, including 125,000 civilians in Iraq.  Many more have died indirectly, from the loss of clean drinking  water, healthcare, and nutrition. An additional 365,000 have  been wounded and 7.8 million people — equal to the combined  population of Connecticut and Kentucky — have been displaced.

“Costs of War” brought together more than 20 academics to  uncover the expense of war in lives and dollars, a daunting  task given the inconsistent recording of lives lost and what  the report called opaque and sloppy accounting by the U.S.  Congress and the Pentagon.

The report underlines the extent to which war will continue  to stretch the U.S. federal budget, which is already on an  unsustainable course due to an aging American population and  skyrocketing healthcare costs.

It also raises the question of what the United States  gained from its multitrillion-dollar investment.

“I hope that when we look back, whenever this ends,  something very good has come out of it,” Senator Bob Corker, a  Republican from Tennessee, told Reuters in Washington.

SEPT 11, 2001: THE DAMAG

In one sense, the report measures the cost of 9/11, the  American shorthand for the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Nineteen  hijackers plus other al Qaeda plotters spent an estimated  $400,000 to $500,000 on the plane attacks that killed 2,995  people and caused $50 billion to $100 billion in economic  damages.

What followed were three wars in which $50 billion amounts  to a rounding error. For every person killed on Sept. 11,  another 73 have been killed since.

Was it worth it? That is a question many people want  answered, said Catherine Lutz, head of the anthropology  department at Brown and co-director of the study.

“We decided we needed to do this kind of rigorous  assessment of what it cost to make those choices to go to war,”  she said. “Politicians, we assumed, were not going to do that  kind of assessment.”

The report arrives as Congress debates how to cut a U.S.  deficit projected at $1.4 trillion this year, roughly a 10th of  which can be attributed to direct war spending.

What did the United States gain for its trillions?

Strategically, the results for the United States are mixed.  Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are dead, but Iraq and  Afghanistan are far from stable democracies. Iran has gained  influence in the Gulf and the Taliban, though ousted from  government, remain a viable military force in Afghanistan.

“The United States has been extremely successful in  protecting the homeland,” said George Friedman, founder of  STRATFOR, a U.S.-based intelligence company.

“Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was capable of mounting very  sophisticated, complex, operations on an intercontinental  basis. That organization with that capability has not only been  substantially reduced, it seems to have been shattered,”  Friedman said.

Economically, the results are also mixed. War spending may  be adding half a percentage point a year to growth in the gross  domestic product but that has been more than offset by the  negative effects of deficit spending, the report concludes.


Some U.S. government reports have attempted to assess the  costs of war, notably a March 2011 Congressional Research  Service report that estimated post-Sept. 11 war funding at $1.4  trillion through 2012. The Congressional Budget Office  projected war costs through 2021 at $1.8 trillion.

A ground-breaking private estimate was published in the  2008 book “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” by Linda Bilmes, a  member of the Watson Institute team, and Nobel-winning  economist Joseph Stiglitz. That work revealed how much cost was  added by interest on deficit spending and medical care for  veterans.

The report draws on those sources and pieces together many  others for a more comprehensive picture.

The report also makes special note of Pakistan, a front not  generally mentioned along with Iraq and Afghanistan. War has  probably killed more people in Pakistan than in neighboring  Afghanistan, the report concludes.

Politicians throughout history have underestimated the  costs of war, believing they will be shorter and less deadly  than reality, said Neta Crawford, the other co-director of the  report and a political science professor at Boston University.

The report said former President George W. Bush’s  administration was “shamelessly politically driven” in  underestimating Iraq war costs before the 2003 invasion.

Most official sources continue to overlook costs, largely  because of a focus on just Pentagon spending, Crawford said.

“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on  war,” Obama said in last week’s speech on reducing U.S. troop  levels in Afghanistan. At the very least, he was rounding down  by $200 billion to $300 billion, when counting U.S.  congressional appropriations for the post 9/11 wars.

“I don’t know what the president knows, but I wish it were  a trillion,” Crawford said. “It would be better if it were a  trillion.”


In theory, adding up the dollars spent and lives lost  should be a statistical errand. The U.S. Congress appropriates  the money, and a life lost on battlefield should have a death  certificate and a casket to match.

The team quickly discovered, however, the task was far more  complicated.

Specific war spending over the past 10 years, when  expressed in 2011 dollars, comes to $1.3 trillion, the “Costs  of War” project found. When it comes to accounting for every  dollar, that $1.3 trillion is merely a good start.

Since the wars have been financed by deficit spending,  interest must be paid — $185 billion of accumulated so far.

The Pentagon has received an additional $326 billion to  $652 billion beyond what can be attributed to the war  appropriations, the study found.
Homeland security spending has totaled another $401 billion  so far that can be traced to Sept. 11. War-related foreign aid:  another $74 billion.

Then comes caring for U.S. veterans of war. Nearly half of  the 1.25 million who have served in uniform in Iraq and  Afghanistan have used their status as veterans to make health  or disability claims at an expense of $32.6 billion to date.

Those costs will soar over the next 40 years as veterans  age. The report estimates the U.S. obligations to the veterans  will reach $589 billion to $934 billion through 2050.

So far, those numbers add up to a low estimate of $2.9  trillion and a moderate estimate of $3.6 trillion in costs to  the U.S. Treasury. No high estimate was offered.

“We feel a conservative measure of costs is plenty large to  attract attention,” said report contributor Ryan Edwards, an  economist who studied the war impact on deficit spending.

Those numbers leave out hundreds of billions in social  costs not born by the U.S. taxpayer but by veterans and their  families: another $295 billion to $400 billion, increasing the  range of costs to date to some $3.2 trillion to $4 trillion.

That’s a running total through fiscal 2011. Add another  $453 billion in war-related spending projected for 2012 to 2020  and the total grows to $3.668 trillion to $4.444 trillion.


If the financial costs are elusive, so too is the human  toll.

The report estimates between 224,475 and 257,655 have been  killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, though those numbers  give a false sense of precision. There are many sources of data  on civilian deaths, most with different results.

The civilian death toll in Iraq — 125,000 — and the  number of Saddam’s security forces killed in invasion — 10,000  — are loose estimates. The U.S. military does not publish a  thorough accounting.

“We don’t do body counts,” Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander  in Iraq, famously said after the fall of Saddam in 2003.

In Afghanistan, the civilian death count ranges from 11,700  to 13,900. For Pakistan, where there is little access to the  battlefield and the United States fights mostly through aerial  drone attacks, the study found it impossible to distinguish  between civilian and insurgent deaths.

The numbers only consider direct deaths — people killed by  bombs or bullets. Estimates for indirect deaths in war vary so  much that researchers considered them too arbitrary to report.

“When the fighting stops, the indirect dying continues.  It’s in fact worse than land mines. The healthcare system is  still in bad shape. People are still suffering the effects of  malnutrition and so on,” Crawford said.
Even where the United States does do body counts — for the  members of the military — the numbers may come up short of  reality, said Lutz, the study’s co-director. When veterans  return home, they are more likely to die in suicides and  automobile accidents.
“The rate of chaotic behavior,” she said, “is high.”

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