What Has Been the Real Costs of the Post-9/11 Wars?

This week, as the media runs its displays on America ten years after the 9/11 attacks, there will be references to the dollar costs.  A figure some will use is the one trillion dollars President Obama cited as for the war in Iraq.  That figure is a gross underestimate.

The war in Iraq and its costs are inseparable from the wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia and elsewhere.  Indeed, when the Defense Department seeks appropriations for them, it does not distinguish the costs by location; nor does Congress in appropriations bills.

Moreover, the DOD costs are hardly the whole story: add costs in the State Department budget for aid to the governments (such as they are) of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

Add also the costs to care for the US veterans of these wars.  That would include the care already extended and the care now obligated for the duration of these men’s and women’s lives.

Add to that the expanded costs of domestic security against terrorism.

Add also the interest we annually pay for the deficit spending that has financed the wars.

In short, if all the wars were to end today without a single penny appropriated for military operations, etc. for the upcoming fiscal year (2012), the federal costs already incurred would be from $3.2 to $3.9 trillion.  If the wars were to run their course — as currently (and optimistically) estimated by the Congressional Budget Office — the costs (together with additional interest payments for the required deficit spending out to the year 2020) would come to an additional $1.45 trillion.

All that would make a total cost from $4.7 to $5.4 trillion — assuming everything in the future goes according to plan.

See a breakout of these  costs in the summary table of Brown University’s Costs of War study.

In sum, the costs to be incurred are very roughly five times the $1 trillion President Obama has articulated.

Breaking down some of these costs is also instructive.

The Congressional Research Service has assiduously tracked direct appropriations for DOD (and State Department) expenses for the wars.  For the period up to the end of this month (after ten years of wars), CRS records the DOD appropriations for the wars to be $1.2 trillion.  (Find the latest CRS study on this at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf.)

However, this amount does not include an additional $600+ billion that was added to DOD’s “base” (non-war) budget as a result of the wars and the politics surrounding them.  In short, the direct and indirect DOD costs for the wars up to the end of this month are $1.9 trillion (in 2011 dollars), not $1.2 trillion.  I performed this analysis of the DOD budget for Brown’s Costs of War study; find my analysis — and an explanation of the $1.9 trillion total — at http://costsofwar.org/article/pentagon-budget.

If you think that the DOD spending for the wars has been prudently spent, or even accurately calibrated, I urge you to read this paper.

Linda Bilmes of Harvard performed an analysis of the up to $1.4 trillion cost for veterans and their families; find her analysis athttp://costsofwar.org/article/caring-us-veterans.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was not one of Brown University’s Costs of War analysts, but he has written incisively about both the federal and the broader economic costs of the wars.  Find a summary of his analysis (and links to other useful broader economic analysis of the wars) at http://www.slate.com/id/2302949/?wpisrc=obinsite.

There are, of course, other human and moral costs that the Costs of War Study addresses and that others have addressed as well. As the American media cranks it out for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it will eagerly prompt the emotions of the original event.  Thinking and reacting that way is precisely how we ended up spending something in excess of $5 trillion and achieved a result that is the solid basis for only an argument — and very little more.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project and editor of “The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It.

Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.