Back in 2013, a Harvard University study determined the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would together cost American taxpayers $4 to $6 trillion over the coming decades.
That figure, calculated after 2011’s “end” of the war in Iraq and before 2014’s “end” of combat operations in Afghanistan, included both money spent on each conflict to date and long-term medical expenses for the thousands of U.S. soldiers who suffered physical and/or mental injuries as a result of their time in combat.
The price tag was so high it doubled or tripled the projected 10-year cost of ObamaCare, which at $2 trillion was a comparative bargain.
But that was in 2013, and since then both wars didn’t exactly end. Instead, we got ISIS and apparently endless quagmire, with each of these conflicts being described as “generational” commitments that America will be stuck with for years to come.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $5 trillion so far, and that total could rise even higher in the years to come, according to new calculations released by independent researchers late last week.
That total includes not only the costs of equipment and personnel in those countries, but also State Department spending to help local populations, Department of Homeland Security spending linked to the wars and Department of Veterans Affairs services that expanded as troops returned home.
The exact tally is $4.79 trillion, and the study author, Neta C. Crawford, notes that’s really an understatement of our long-term obligations, because it doesn’t take into account interest on war debt. She calculates that interest payments alone will hit $7.3 trillion by 2053.
So if we add in the interest costs the wars generate (which I think is fair), we’re looking at $12.09 trillion spent on these two wars by 2053—and that’s what it would be if we actually ended both wars at the end of 2017, as Crawford’s calculation only includes direct war spending through the end of next year. In reality, it seems likely that American intervention will continue in both countries past next December, which means even $12.09 trillion is an under-counting of what these wars will cost.
Of course, calculable expenditures can never account for the many other ways these interminable, counterproductive wars have cost the United States and Iraq and Afghanistan themselves. “A full accounting of any war’s burdens cannot be places in columns on a ledger,” Crawford writes. “From the civilians harmed or displaced by violence, to the soldiers killed and wounded, to the children who play years later on roads and fields sown with improvised explosive devices and cluster bombs, no set of numbers can convey the human toll of the wars.”
Sadly, neither the human nor financial costs should surprise us. War is always defined by “its brutality, its futility, its stupidity,” as general and President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, and it is far from immune to the wasteful spending typical of large-scale federal projects. We cannot avoid repeating this deadly, exacting toll on our country until we learn both lessons well.