What $1.6 Trillion Bought the U.S. in Global War on Terror

Source: David McNew/Getty Images News

Source: David McNew/Getty Images News

In the 13 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States has spent a total of $1.6 trillion financing military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theaters of the global war on terror — according to calculations made by the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. government’s massive spending sum includes the cost of military operations, the training of security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, reconstruction, weapons maintenance, base support, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans health care.

This $1.6 trillion figure may seem small compared to some estimates that have been made. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government forecast in 2013 that the decade-long wars in the Middle East would eventually cost American taxpayers as much as $6 trillion. With that price tag, roughly the same as the annual gross domestic product of India, this smaller sum may seem more manageable. But it is important to remember that the $1.6 trillion has already been spent. The $6 trillion sum is a long-term estimate that includes such considerations as the lifetime medical costs of the 2.5 million veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom served multiple deployments, survived injuries that would have been fatal in other U.S. wars, and now face huge mental and physical challenges. “Another major share of the long-term costs of the wars comes from paying off trillions of dollars in debt incurred as the U.S. government failed to include their cost in annual budgets and simultaneously implemented sweeping tax cuts for the rich,” stated the report. “In addition, huge expenditures are being made to replace military equipment used in the two wars.” In fact, Harvard researchers claimed that the largest portion of the War on Terror’s bill has yet to be paid.

A second study conducted by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies came to a similar conclusion: An overall price tag of as much as $4.4 trillion, driven in a large part by the cost of borrowing to finance the operations.

It should not be forgotten that federal auditors — the Special Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency — found that the U.S. government needlessly wasted billions of dollars on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, warned Congress on multiple occasions that many projects have run over budget and been left unfinished. Even worse, auditors can only account for about 10% of the $104 billion reconstruction effort. “Honestly, it’s a tragic waste of blood and treasure,” Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst at CATO, told the Fiscal Times. “There’s been so much that’s been invested in Afghanistan. Now we’re recognizing that it’s come at a very steep cost.”

Nearly $2 trillion is a dollar amount so large it needs more context to understand the scope of U.S. military spending. That $1.6 trillion translates to approximately $337 million per day, $14 million per hour, and $250,000 per minute. That sum is roughly equal to the $1.6 trillion the Federal Reserve spent on buying bonds during the third round of quantitative easing — a fiscal policy designed to stimulate the U.S. economy by lowering borrowing costs. It also is roughly equal to South Korea’s 2013 economic output.

Breaking down that figure into its parts provides an even better sense of scale. Of that $1.6 trillion, the Department of State received a 6% chunk for foreign aid programs and diplomatic operations and just 1% was spent on medical care for veterans. The largest share — or about 92% — was allocated to the Department of Defense, which distributed funds to the government’s civilian contractors who manufactured the necessary jets, drones, and missiles; helped run prisons like Abu Ghraib; and, provided security and support to outnumbered U.S. troops on the ground.

Essentially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the United States’ most privatized military engagement in history; at the height of their involvement in 2008, the Pentagon employed 155,826 private contractors in Iraq. That compares to 152,275 troops. Private contractors are by no means new players in American military engagements, playing supporting roles in Vietnam, the Balkans, and Operation Desert Storm. But in Iraq they took on functions more traditionally handled by military personnel, and in Iraq, private defense contractors were the source of, or at least involved in a slew of problems and scandals ranging from Blackwater’s fatal shooting of 14 unarmed Iraqis to the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. They have been linked to bribery, questionable contract awards, and outright theft. Part of the problem is that defense contractors operated in a legal grey area; not only are there no clear-cut international guidelines for their status, but still any misbehavior on the part of civilian contractors has the potential to derail military operations. And misbehavior was rampant. A 2008 RAND survey found that 40% of diplomatic personnel who had worked with armed contractors in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 reported witnessing armed contractors acting unnecessarily threatening, arrogant, or belligerent while deployed. Little government oversight meant the security contractors became, in effect, shadow armies.

Money earmarked for the Global War on Terror remained untouched by sequestration — the across-the-board discretionary spending cuts enacted by Congress in March 2013 — because the Pentagon has a separate budget for fighting wars that is included in mandatory spending. However, these cuts did impact the Department of Defense’s regular peacetime budget.

Expressing the cost of these long-term military engagements purely in terms of dollar amounts leaves many details of the true toll of war in modern America obscure, namely it excludes the human cost. “However one judges the U.S. waging of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, at the very least, we should know what each of those wars has been like, we should know who has been killed, what kinds of wounds have been suffered, and what kinds of economic costs and consequences have been incurred,”  as the Brown University study eloquently noted. “Those costs have been consistently minimized, misunderstood, or hidden from public view.”  The study said the “extremely conservative” estimate places the death toll for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq at 225,000, with 365,000 wounded. Counting United States troops alone, 6,000 soldiers and 2,300 contractors were killed.

There is no denying the role journalism plays in chronicling war, but first-person narratives have the details “that slam home a sense of what the wars were like on the front lines,” as The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani has noted. “A suicide bomber’s head pulled from the rubble of the mosque he’d bombed; the sonogram of an unborn child found among a soldier’s remains.”

As it has for centuries, war literature has acted as a catharsis for the writer, bridged the gap between the soldier at war and the home front, and borne witness to the death and chaos of the battlefield. The works penned by veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also point out the the most important particularities of those conflicts: The changes in technology, the increased presence of female soldiers, and “most importantly, the all-volunteer military, which has opened a chasm between soldiers (“the other 1 percent”) and civilians,” according to Kakutani. “With no shared sacrifices being asked of civilians after Sept. 11 and a ban (with origins in the first Gulf War and lifted in 2009) on photographing coffins on military bases, it’s no surprise that the disconnect between life ‘over there’ and life ‘back here’ has emerged as a central theme in much of today’s war writing.”

Of course, when soldiers were deployed, and to which country, drove the narratives. “Early successes in Afghanistan made for very different sorts of narratives than those that would come out of Iraq later, when knowledge of just what a misguided enterprise it was (cherry-picked intelligence, bungled decision making in Washington and a dysfunctional occupation) had created a dark undertow to many soldiers’ perception of their own experiences,” concluded Kakutani.

Long supplementing these narratives are the voices of critics of the American military-industrial complex.

The release of the Congressional Research Service’s calculation of how much the global War on Terror has cost American taxpayers has prompted both political historians and foreign policy experts to make their own computation: What did that $1.6 trillion buy? In an opinion piece published by the Huffington Post, Tom Engelhardt — author of The United States of Fear and Professor of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley — described U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks as a failure. Sure, the U.S. government had success in further growing the national security state and instilling fear in the “American body politic.” However, the “national security state has been built on a foundation of almost total failure,” Engelhardt wrote. “Think of failure, in fact, as the spark that repeatedly sets the further expansion of its apparatus in motion, funds it, and allows it to thrive.” In his estimation, the United States’ response to the disaster transformed global jihadism from “a microscopic movement on this planet” to the number-one foreign policy concern. “Since 9/11, under the pressure of American military power, it has exploded geographically, while the number of jihadist organizations has multiplied, and the number of people joining such groups has regularly and repeatedly increased, a growth rate that seems to correlate with the efforts of Washington to destroy terrorism and its infrastructure,” he argued, ostensibly referring to the expansion of ISIL in Syria and Iraq. The rise of that radical Islamic group means the United States is backing the Middle East, spending billions. A September report from the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments calculated the conflict could cost between $2.4 billion and $22 billion per year.

Of course, measuring the succession of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is one issue — one that still is hotly debated. Whether the United States should ever have become militarily involved is another argument entirely.

More From Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS