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Staggering Price Tag for Iraq, Afghanistan Wars

CAS prof estimates U.S. cost at $4 trillion


Two US Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knights and an UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter land for fuel at a Forward Air Refueling Point (FARP), on a road near the Jalibah airstrip, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Costs of War study found that the Department of Defense is the country’s single largest consumer of fuel. Photo by Flickr user Expert Infantry. Graphic by Joseph Chan

Neta Crawford hopes to deepen the public’s understanding of the staggering ripple effects—human, economic, and environmental—of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the counterinsurgency efforts in Pakistan. The College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science is the coauthor of a just-released, far-reaching study estimating the cost of these wars to the United States at $4 trillion.

Launched under the auspices of the Eisenhower Institute, a center for leadership and public policy at Gettysburg College honoring the late president’s legacy, the Costs of War study took more than a year to complete. It pooled the efforts of economists, anthropologists, lawyers, and political scientists, says Crawford, who directed the study with Catherine Lutz, a Brown University professor of anthropology and international studies. Crawford’s scholarship focused mainly on the civilian death toll, which stands at 137,000.

According to the report, since September 11, 2001, the wars have claimed the lives of 6,000 U.S. troops and 2,300 contractors, and the number of displaced Afghans and Iraqis is eight million. The report, which numbers the war dead, in and out of uniform, at 225,000, also notes that the armed conflict in Pakistan, which is backed by the U.S. military with both training and equipment for the Pakistani military, has resulted in the loss of as many lives as the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.

In calculating war costs, the study ventures into uncharted territory, from estimates of federally funded domestic jobs lost to war spending to data reflecting the post 9/11 toll on Americans’ privacy. For example, a 2006 audit of the FBI found the agency had gathered communications of more than 3,000 people without satisfying even the minimal certification requirements under the USA Patriot Act. Beyond war’s human costs, the report charts the conflicts’ disturbing effects on bird migrations and endangered species. U.S. military bases have become lucrative markets for the skins of the exotic snow leopard, peddled by impoverished Afghans despite a hunting ban on the rare animals since 2002.

War bills already paid and obligated to be paid amount to at least $3.2 trillion in constant dollars, according to the report, which concludes that $4 trillion is “a more reasonable” overall estimate. The researchers worked to arrive at verifiable conservative estimates of the wars’ costs in human and economic terms, as well as long-term economic effects that range from lost wages to medical care to veterans’ benefits to homeland security expenditures. As of last fall, the report found that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans filing new disability claims surpassed 550,000. Less obvious is the striking environmental toll of the wars, from the dangerous level of toxic dust caused by military base garbage-burning pits to deforestation to fuel consumption.

The report is also startling for its mention of costs that could not be counted, including so-called “condolence payments” to the survivors of civilians killed in U.S. operations, the costs of CIA-run Predator and Reaper drone surveillance and strike programs in Pakistan, and the portion of the national intelligence budget devoted to the wars. While the director of national intelligence releases its top line figure—the 2011 request was for $55 million—the department does not disclose any budget details, claiming national security concerns.

Based on their findings, Crawford and Lutz offer recommendations for greater transparency and accountability in these conflicts and those to come and offer fact-based alternatives to violent conflict. Even in the face of terrorism, war isn’t the only answer, the authors say, citing a Rand Corporation report comparing 268 groups using terror tactics worldwide from 1968 to 2006. Of these, 40 percent were eliminated through intelligence and policing methods; 43 percent ended their violence as a result of political accommodation, and 10 percent ceased violent activities because they had achieved their objectives. Only 7 percent of the groups were defeated militarily.

BU Today recently spoke with Crawford, editor of Soviet Military Aircraft and author of Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention, about the challenges presented by the study, its most surprising findings, and the impact she hopes it will have on decision makers.

BU Today: How did the Costs of War study come about?
Crawford: Some scholars began the Eisenhower research project; the mission is to call attention to the role of the military and the effect of taking resources and putting them into the military from other places. Eisenhower spoke of this. We decided the study would commemorate the 50th anniversary of his presidential farewell speech, in which he acknowledged that another war could destroy civilization.

What were some of the challenges you faced?
What came to me after reading the researchers’ early drafts was that there was more to know than what we could cover given our resources. We had a very small budget, and we realized we had to figure out what we needed to add, realizing that we couldn’t count everything, even though there were so many more ripple effects of the wars than we had thought.

Can you give an example of an uncountable ripple effect?
I hadn’t thought through the long-term consequences of financing these wars mostly by borrowing. These wars have been financed like no other war has been financed in U.S. history. In every other war we increased taxes, sold war bonds—we paid for those wars in relatively short order. But these wars began in a time when tax cuts just went into effect. By borrowing to pay for them, that means not just having an increased deficit, but having to pay interest on the debt. If you pay interest for 5, 10, 20, and more years, it adds up to a sum so enormous we didn’t include it. We put it off to the side because it would overwhelm every other thing. And we didn’t include other ripple effects. We know, for example, that veterans will have to replace prosthetic devices for limbs: there’s an ongoing cost we didn’t include. And we didn’t look at costs incurred by the Red Cross, or NGOs, or the hospitals.

In collecting all the data, what costs surprised you?
One of the things is how this war comes home in the higher interest rates that you and I might pay to buy a house. There are significant macro-economic effects.

Tell us about calculating the civilian toll in these conflicts.
I wrote the sections about civilian killings, and what I wanted to do is describe how it is that people not only die when they’re bombed, but they die because infrastructure is destroyed or because they can’t get health care or vaccinations as a result of that destruction. In political science we call this structural violence. There’s been some effort to quantify this, but you need much more detailed work on conditions prior to war, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the things I was trying to get across was that when the fighting stops, the dying continues, and the dying is this indirect debt. Also, when you kill innocent civilians, it creates resistance and promotes insurgency, fueling a semicovert war.

Was there debate about including Pakistan in the study?
I had argued from the beginning that we should include it, and everyone agreed. It became increasingly salient, but it was in the study from the beginning. My reasoning was that the United States thinks of Pakistan as essential for winning in Afghanistan, channeling most of its war material through Pakistan, and U.S. military aid to Pakistan has increased. Pakistan is crucial to thinking about Afghanistan, but it is a war zone in its own right. In Afghanistan, the United States went in with boots on the ground, but in Pakistan it’s attempting to skip that boots-on-the-ground phase, and we have so-called Vietnamization, or indigenization, of that fight. We have military trainers, U.S. equipment, and of course the drone strikes, a novel and rarely spoken about feature of the war.

Would you call your conclusion that these wars cost as much as $4 trillion a conservative estimate?
This could be a high estimate, but we’re pretty confident that what we have is the right order of magnitude. We didn’t even include, for example, the new G.I. bill.

The way the United States fights war is different than in the past. These are very capital-intensive wars.

How does the use of contractors affect war costs?
We had mercenaries in the past, but this use of contractors is beyond that. We have people cooking meals where army privates used to do it, and often these people are paid a greater amount. And there’s a human cost. The people in uniform don’t get a rest from being on patrol or driving trucks, so in the past, when soldiers went to peel potatoes because sergeants saw that they were fatigued, they had that outlet, and now they don’t. Paying contractors has a real human toll.

Is it possible to quantify war’s effects on the environment?
One problem is that you’re dealing with societies that are already devastated by previous wars. Just as you can’t disentangle effects on infrastucture from one war to the next, there are some additive effects. The effects of these most recent wars will linger well into the future in terms of human life and indirect killing, and it’s the same with the environment. For example in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, there are still people being injured by land mines, animals are being killed by mines, and people avoid mined fields and don’t till them, so the effects really linger.

Has the response to the report been positive?
Well, I’ve gotten emails from colleagues questioning our conservative estimates. Some want to know why, for example, estimates of civilian deaths are so low. I explained my decision to go with what I was very certain of, rather than go with a larger number I wasn’t certain of, because I didn’t want to focus attention on arguing about these numbers, which we could do forever. So to bypass that argument I chose to lowball, because we want to give a comprehensive picture.

Will the study be updated?
The website will be revised, and we hope to get resources to cover the areas of wars that we could not research appropriately. There are things we still want to know about: for example, we need to know more about the effects of war on gender and gender roles, we need much more research on economic impact, we want to know more about environmental impact and the economic costs of war to U.S. allies. We have a lot of questions.

What would you like the legacy of this report to be?
What I really wanted to happen has already begun to happen: to try to deepen the conversation and think about war differently. In 30 years of study, for nearly every war that I can think of, people and nations think wars will be shorter in duration and less costly than they are. What we wanted to do was deepen the democratic dialogue about that, so we go into a war with a deeper understanding.

Read the Costs of War study here.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


5 Comments on Staggering Price Tag for Iraq, Afghanistan Wars

  • Anonymous on 07.08.2011 at 11:22 am

    The information here is concise and understandable. I plan to pass it on to as many friends and relatives as possible. Thank you BU Today for reporting on this important study

  • David on 09.09.2011 at 12:23 pm

    Thank you for presenting this study. Every American needs to read this. The thing that is most disturbing is that none of this was mentioned by the Republicans or Democrats during the shameful budget and debt ceiling horror show that we just went through with the democrats caving in to the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party at the end.The President should have stood up and said that he was not going to allow the debt ceiling process to be mingled with a budget debate because one had nothing to do with the other. He never should have allowed himself to be bullied into no win negotiations with the Republicans who had no intention of compromising and in the end got everything that they wanted at the expense of the poorest and most needy members of our society. I wonder if this same bunch of Republican lunatics would have been spewing such nonsense if the President was white?

  • Bryan Jiencke on 09.27.2011 at 8:36 pm

    Somebody should come up with some sort of way to quantitate the gains we’ve taken out of both conflicts in dollars and than put that number on a bar graph next to the number of dollars we’ve put in to them so that we can laugh (or cry) at the difference.

  • Ernest R Richardson on 10.13.2012 at 12:52 am

    These costs are staggering and I understand are being paid from the current administration’s budged. With this in mind, why all at once they want to cap the debt ceiling all at once?

  • t. blackowiak on 02.03.2014 at 7:25 pm

    This is the national delusion. to my understanding, we just gave 600 and some billion plus 80 some billion to the pentagon (the 80 bill supposedly is for overseas operations)Right there is nearly 3/4 of a trillion. Historically, it’s one of the ways empires and nations fall. Ironically, it wasn’t too long after the soviet union came out of Afghanistan that the jig was up.

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