Nancy A. Youssef / McClatchy Newspapers & Brown University’s Costs of War Project – 2011-08-16 20:22:13
True Cost of US Wars Unknown
Nancy A. Youssef / McClatchy Newspapers
The Pentagon says it spends about $9.7 billion per month, but its cryptic accounting system hides the true price tag of the two wars.
WASHINGTON (August 16, 2011) — When congressional cost-cutters meet later this year to decide on trimming the federal budget, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could represent juicy targets. But how much do the wars actually cost the US taxpayer?
Nobody really knows.
Yes, Congress has allotted $1.3 trillion for war spending through fiscal year 2011 just to the Defense Department. There are long Pentagon spreadsheets that outline how much of that was spent on personnel, transportation, fuel and other costs. In a recent speech, President Barack Obama assigned the wars a $1 trillion price tag.
But all those numbers are incomplete. Besides what Congress appropriated, the Pentagon spent an additional unknown amount from its $5.2 trillion base budget over that same period. According to a recent Brown University study, the wars and their ripple effects have cost the United States $3.7 trillion, or more than $12,000 per American.
Lawmakers remain sharply divided over the wisdom of slashing the military budget, even with the United States winding down two long conflicts, but there’s also a more fundamental problem: It’s almost impossible to pin down just what the US military spends on war.
To be sure, the costs are staggering.
According to Defense Department figures, by the end of April, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — including everything from personnel and equipment to training Iraqi and Afghan security forces and deploying intelligence-gathering drones — had cost an average of $9.7 billion a month, with roughly two-thirds going to Afghanistan. That total is roughly the entire annual budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.
To compare, it would take the State Department – with its annual budget of $27.4 billion – more than four months to spend that amount. NASA could have launched its final shuttle mission in July, which cost $1.5 billion, six times for what the Pentagon is allotted to spend each month in those two wars.
What about Medicare Part D, President George W. Bush’s 2003 expansion of prescription drug benefits for seniors, which cost a Congressional Budget Office-estimated $385 billion over 10 years? The Pentagon spends that in Iraq and Afghanistan in about 40 months.
Because of the complex and often ambiguous Pentagon budgeting process, it’s nearly impossible to get an accurate breakdown of every operating cost. Some funding comes out of the base budget; other money comes from supplemental appropriations.
But the estimates can be eye-popping, especially considering the logistical challenges to getting even the most basic equipment and comforts to troops in extremely forbidding terrain.
In Afghanistan, for example, the US military spent $1.5 billion to purchase 329.8 million gallons of fuel for vehicles, aircraft and generators from October 2010 to May 2011. That’s a not-unheard-of $4.55 per gallon, but it doesn’t include the cost of getting the fuel to combat zones and the human cost of transporting it through hostile areas, which can hike the cost to hundreds of dollars a gallon.
Just getting air-conditioning to troops in Afghanistan, including transport and maintenance, costs $20 billion per year, retired Brig. Gen. Steve Anderson told National Public Radio recently. That’s half the amount that the federal government has spent on Amtrak over 40 years.
War spending falls behind tax cuts and prescription drug benefits for seniors as contributors to the $14.3 trillion federal debt. The Pentagon’s base budget has grown every year for the past 14 years, marking the longest sustained growth period in US history, but it seems clear that that era is ending.
Since the US government issued war bonds to help finance World War II, Washington has asked taxpayers to shoulder less and less of a burden in times of conflict. In the early 1950s Congress raised taxes by 4 percent of the gross domestic product to pay for the Korean War; in 1968, during the Vietnam War, a tax was imposed to raise revenue by about 1 percent of GDP.
No such mechanism was imposed for Iraq or Afghanistan, and in the early years of the wars Congress didn’t even demand a true accounting of war spending, giving the military whatever it needed. Now, at a time of fiscal woes and with the American public weary of the wars, the question has become how much the nation’s largest bureaucracy should cut.
“The debt crisis has been a game changer in terms of defense spending,” said Laura Peterson, a national security analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog.
“It used to be that asking how much the wars cost was unpatriotic. The attitude going into the war is you spend whatever you cost. Now maybe asking is more patriotic.”
Still, deep cuts to the Pentagon remain unpalatable to many lawmakers. The debt limit deal that Congress passed earlier this month calls for $350 billion in “defense and security” spending cuts through 2024, but that’s expected to be spread across several government agencies, sparing the Pentagon much of the blow.
However, if the 12-member bipartisan “super-committee” of lawmakers can’t agree on further federal budget cuts later this year, the law mandates across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, with half of that coming from the Pentagon. The prospect of such deep defense cuts is thought to provide a strong incentive for deficit hawks to compromise and spread the pain more broadly.
Politics aside, finding defense savings is complex, even with the Obama administration trying to wind down two wars. For one thing, reducing troop levels doesn’t necessarily yield commensurate cost reductions, given the huge amount of infrastructure the military still maintains in each country.
In Afghanistan, the cost per service member climbed from $507,000 in fiscal year 2009 to $667,000 the following year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Fiscal year 2011 costs are expected to reach $694,000 per service member, even as the US military begins drawing down 33,000 of the 99,000 troops there.
In Iraq, even with the overall costs of the war declining and the US military scheduled to withdraw its remaining 46,000 troops by the end of this year, the cost per service member spiked from $510,000 in 2007 to $802,000 this year.
In fiscal year 2011, Congress authorized $113 billion for the war in Afghanistan and $46 billion for Iraq. The Pentagon’s 2012 budget request is lower: $107 billion for Afghanistan and $11 billion for Iraq.
In the more austere fiscal climate, the Pentagon has tried to be proactive, proposing cuts to some major military programs such as the controversial and hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the national debt the biggest threat to US national security. Before leaving office last month as defense secretary, Robert Gates ordered his department to find ways to cut $400 billion from the defense budget over 12 years, under Obama’s orders.
Among the challenges of determining the costs of war is defining what to include. Rising health care costs for veterans? The damage done to Iraqi and Afghan families, cities and institutions? Holding tens of thousands of detainees at US military prisons in those two countries and others around the world? The massive interest on war-related debt, which some experts say could reach $1 trillion by 2020?
“The ripple effects on the US economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been underappreciated,” wrote a team of Brown University experts who authored a June report called Costs of War.
Critics of the defense budget process note that the US already has paid a heavy cost for the wars, spending billions to wind up with older equipment and troops receiving less training.
Winslow Wheeler, who worked on national security issues on Capitol Hill for 30 years, said the Navy and Air Force fleets were smaller after a decade of war. The Army has been left with run-down, overworked vehicles and equipment.
“The danger of that is that as we blithely go on not paying attention, things happen that we don’t notice, like the older, less trained forces,” Wheeler said. Because the cost of replacing equipment has risen dramatically over the past decade, “what we are paying is a higher cost for a smaller force.” He likened it to replacing a Lamborghini with a Volkswagen.
The President of the United States has told the American people and the rest of the world that even as the US withdraws some troops from Afghanistan and continues to withdraw from Iraq, the wars will continue for some years. The debate over why each war was begun and whether either or both should have been fought continues.
What we do know, without debate, is that the wars begun ten years ago have been tremendously painful for millions of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and the United States, and economically costly as well. Each additional month and year of war will add to that toll.
To date, however, there has been no comprehensive accounting of the costs of the United States’ wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The goal of the Costs of War project has been to outline a broad understanding of the domestic and international costs and consequences of those wars. The Eisenhower Research Project based at Brown University assembled a team that includes economists, anthropologists, political scientists, legal experts, and a physician to do this analysis.
â€¢ What have been the wars’ costs in human and economic terms?
â€¢ How have these wars changed the social and political landscape of the United States and the countries where the wars have been waged?
â€¢ What will be the long term legacy of these conflicts for veterans?
â€¢ What is the long term economic effect of these wars likely to be?
Were and are there alternative less costly and more effective ways to prevent further terror attacks?
Some of the projectâ€™s findings:
While we know how many US soldiers have died in the wars (just over 6,000), what is startling is what we don’t know about the levels of injury and illness in those who have returned from the wars. New disability claims continue to pour into the VA, with 550,000 just through last fall. Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been identified.
At least 137,000 civilians have died and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict.
The armed conflict in Pakistan, which the US helps the Pakistani military fight by funding, equipping and training them, has taken as many lives as the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.
Putting together the conservative numbers of war dead, in uniform and out, brings the total to 225,000.
Millions of people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions. The current number of war refugees and displaced persons — 7,800,000 — is equivalent to all of the people of Connecticut and Kentucky fleeing their homes.
The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.
The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades, some costs not peaking until mid-century. Many of the wars’ costs are invisible to Americans, buried in a variety of budgets, and so have not been counted or assessed.
For example, while most people think the Pentagon war appropriations are equivalent to the wars’ budgetary costs, the true numbers are twice that, and the full economic cost of the wars much larger yet. Conservatively estimated, the war bills already paid and obligated to be paid are $3.2 trillion in constant dollars. A more reasonable estimate puts the number at nearly $4 trillion.
As with former US wars, the costs of paying for veterans’ care into the future will be a sizable portion of the full costs of the war.
The ripple effects on the US economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been underappreciated.
While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy to both countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, both continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom, with warlords continuing to hold power in Afghanistan with US support, and Iraqi communities more segregated today than before by gender and ethnicity as a result of the war.
Serious and compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq. Some of those alternatives are still available to the US.
There are many costs of these wars that we have not yet been able to quantify and assess. With our limited resources, we focused on US spending, US and allied deaths, and the human toll in the major war zones, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
There is still much more to know and understand about how all those affected by the wars have had their health, economies, and communities altered by the decade of war, and what solutions exist for the problems they face as a result of the wars’ destruction.
 Our conservative estimate for Iraqi and Afghan civilian deaths is 136,700, but we rounded this number up to 137,000. The 137,000 figure does not include the category of 35,600 Pakistani deaths listed as “Undetermined” on Table 1 of our Executive Summary. We do not know what percentage of these deaths are civilians.