The price for America’s longest wars has surpassed more than $5.9 trillion and at least 480,000 lost lives, according to a new study released by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.
The figures highlight the toll of U.S. war operations around the world since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the study projects the numbers could rise.
“It’s important for the American people to understand the true costs of war, both the moral and monetary costs,” said Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who helped introduce the report Wednesday at a meeting on Capitol Hill. “Our nation continues to finance wars and military operations through borrowing, rather than asking people to contribute to the national defense directly, and the result is a serious fiscal drag that we’re not really accounting for or factoring into deliberations about fiscal policy or military policy.”
The study’s death estimates include nearly 7,000 U.S. servicemembers, nearly 8,000 U.S. contractors, more than 100,0000 military and police members from other countries, more than 244,000 civilians and more than 100,000 opposition fighters.
The $5.9 trillion U.S. cost includes Pentagon spending through fiscal year 2019, such as direct and indirect spending as well as future war-related costs for post-9/11 war veterans. It represents U.S. spending in the war zones of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other locations designated as “overseas contingency operations.”
It also includes war-related spending by other agencies, such as the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, costs of veterans care as well as debt used to pay for the wars.
“Veterans benefits and disability spending, and the cost of interest on borrowing to pay for the wars, will comprise an increasingly large share of the costs,” said Neta Crawford, a political science professor at the institute, who authored the study.
The institute’s “Costs of War” project, with 35 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners and physicians, began tracking the costs of the post-9/11 wars in 2011 and continues to release updated reports. The group, which does its work through Brown University, said it uses research and public data to facilitate greater transparency of the actual toll of the wars.
Even if the wars were to end by 2023, the United States is on track to spend an additional $808 billion, bringing the overall tally to at least $6.7 trillion, according to the study. That doesn’t include future interest payments on the spending.
War appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan are funded by deficit spending and borrowing, and not new taxes or war bonds, the study notes. This adds to interest costs, it concludes.
Those interest payments could shift with the winds of the economy and other factors, with some pundits estimating those fees alone could total trillions.
“The U.S. continues to fund the wars by borrowing, so this is a conservative estimate of the consequences of funding the war as if on a credit card, in which we are only paying interest even as we continue to spend,” Crawford said.
Tracking an overall cost for the post-9/11 wars is challenging because different departments take part in the spending.
In March 2018, the Defense Department estimated it had spent $1.5 trillion in war-related appropriations, but that only includes a portion of all war spending, the study argued.
With no single number for the budgetary costs of the wars, it makes assessing costs, risks and benefits difficult, Crawford said. Because taxpayers tend to focus on direct military spending, it discounts the larger budgetary costs of the wars and underestimates its greater significance, she added.
“In sum, high costs in war and war-related spending pose a national security concern because they are unsustainable,” Crawford said. “The public would be better served by increased transparency and by the development of a comprehensive strategy to end the wars and deal with other urgent national security priorities.”
The study also tallied the number of soldiers and sailors injured in the wars. Since 2001, more than 53,700 U.S. servicemembers have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those injuries, 62 percent were hurt in Iraq, while 38 percent were injured in Afghanistan.
Though the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has been less intense than in recent years, the toll of civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2018 is on track to be one of the highest death tolls of the war, Crawford said in her study.
Most of these war deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been caused by militants, but some of them are at the hands of the United States and its coalition partners, Crawford said.
Yet, the tally remains incomplete, and there are efforts by the United Nations to track and identify perpetrators of those deaths and injuries, she noted. Other organizations, such as the Congressional Research Service and the news media, are also attempting to track these figures.
“Indeed, we may never know the total direct death toll in these wars,” she said.
In addition, this tally does not include “indirect deaths” — people harmed as a result of long-term damage left in the war zones, such as lost access to food and water.
“This update just scratches the surface of the human consequences of 17 years of war,” Crawford said. “There are a number of areas — the number of civilians killed and injured, and the number of U.S. military and veteran suicides, for instance — where greater transparency would lead to greater accountability and could lead to better policy.”
BY THE NUMBERS
A Brown University study has found the human and financial costs of the post-9/11 wars continue to rise. These are some statistics highlighted in the report:
The U.S. government is conducting counterterrorism activities in 76 countries
More than 244,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
More than 480,000 have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly
The wars have created 10.1 million refugees and displaced persons
The U.S. cost for the post-9/11 wars is more than $5.9 trillion
Source: Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University
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