Calculating the True Cost of War

According to a recent Harvard report, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will end up costing U.S. taxpayers up to $6 trillion in the long term. The report by Linda Bilmes, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School estimates the final cost to be around $4-6 trillion. It is staggering that the estimate ranges by $2 trillion given that just five years ago, Bilmes co-authored a book called “The Three Trillion Dollar War.

While long term costs are difficult to accurately calculate, the estimates are overwhelming. War costs through the end of 2013 are around $1.4 trillion, or roughly 23% of the total expected cost. This figure covers the Pentagon, State and Veterans Administration (not the CIA or other covert operators). The U.S. will budget for less than $100 billion for Afghanistan war funding in 2014 and significantly less than that annually beyond 2014.

Much of the long term cost depends on how long the veterans of these wars live. With nearly one million of 2.5 million veterans having already filed disability claims, we can expect costs to be on the higher end of estimates. The vast majority of the cost—most of the other $4.5 trillion—will be the cost of veteran care.

Of the wars, Bilmes writes “this legacy is debt – promises and commitments that extend far into the future.” As Danger Room put it, the biggest threat to U.S. national security is the wars.

Of course we know the legacy of these last twelve years of war is so much more than just the debt. These twelve years have changed how the U.S. will engage in future wars. The ongoing use of counterterrorism tactics such as training missions, covert operations and drone strikes all over the world—Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya and so on—exemplify this alarming shift in foreign policy.

“War-Lite” Approach Won’t Work

Some argue that one way to reduce the cost of war is to use these counterterror tactics and advanced technologies. Yet recent data visualization of drone strike casualties by Pitch Interactive disputes the idea that the U.S. can “surgically and strategically” kill extremists around the world with impunity. The U.S. is killing a lot of people and very few of them are extremist leaders.

Between 2001 and now, U.S. drones have killed an estimated 3,105 people , including 175 children and 535 civilians. The majority of those killed—2,348 people categorized as “other” in the graphic—are alleged low-level insurgents. Given the way the administration has counted some of these casualties, these numbers are suspicious. A mere 47 people (1.5%) are considered high profile targets.

The legacy of the “war on terror” may not just be debt, but perpetual war. As General Stanly McCrystal, former Special Forces operator and commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan said, “What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world […] The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one…”

Taking Action

Calculating the cost of war and trying to find ways to build an enduring peace are not easy tasks. Over the years, Members of Congress have grown to understand the immense human and financial costs involved in these wars. Recently, Reps. Walter Jones (NC) and Bruce Braley (IA) introduced H.R. 1238, the True Cost of War Act. The bill would require the Obama administration to present official government cost projections for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—something that has not yet been adequately done .

You can take action by writing your member of Congress and asking them to cosponsor H.R. 1238: The True Cost of War Act.

We are at a crossroads for U.S. foreign policy and engagement around the world. As the U.S. ends the bulk of its military involvement in Afghanistan in the coming year, we have an opportunity to reevaluate our engagement around the world. To simply double down on a “war-lite” approach will only lay a foundation for future major wars that we cannot afford.