A staggering cost

The recently published “Costs of War” report – the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – represents the combined efforts of 30 economists, anthropologists, political scientists, attorneys and humanitarian personnel from 15 universities, the United Nations and other organizations to quantify the various costs of these prolonged conflicts.

Economic costs of the wars

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration projected a short conflict that would cost between $50 billion and $60 billion. Through fiscal year 2013, the two wars have cost an estimated $3.1 trillion, with the bulk of this expenditure for the Iraq War. In addition, future obligations for veterans’ medical costs and disability payments until 2053 are projected to be $754.5 billion, pushing the total for both wars close to $4 trillion. The report notes the U.S. paid for previous wars – World War II, for example – by raising taxes and/or selling war bonds. However, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been financed almost “entirely by borrowing” that has “raised the U.S. budget deficit, increased the national debt, and had other macro-economic effects.” The interest alone on Pentagon spending from 2001 through 2013 is $259 billion in current dollars.

Allied combat deaths

As of February 2013, more than 6,650 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan along with almost 3,000 U.S. civilian contractors. More than 26,400 Afghan, Iraq and Pakistani security forces have been killed in these conflicts. Military suicides have increased since the war began, reaching 349 among active-duty personnel in 2012, more than the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan that year. By March 2013, the Veterans Administration had approved 750,000 disability claims, with many vets suffering traumatic brain injuries, amputations, spinal cord wounds and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Civilians killed and wounded

Minimally between 123,000 and 134,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the 2003 invasion, with researchers noting this number may double as a more accurate count is reached. Although the Bush administration stated “precision bombing” would limit the number of civilians killed, “most of the coalition caused deaths were due to air attacks.” As killing by coalition forces declined after the first few years of the war, “insurgent and sectarian violence increased” claiming thousands of lives.

In Afghanistan as of February 2013, between 17,000 and 19,000 civilians have died as a result of the violence. The number of civilian casualties in Pakistan may be higher than that of Afghanistan, with estimates ranging from 18,000 to 49,000 deaths.

The report states that “civilians die at checkpoints, as they are run off the road by military vehicles, when they step on a mine or cluster bomb, as they try to collect wood or tend to their fields, and when they are kidnaped and executed for purposes of revenge or intimidation.” Civilians have been killed “by the U.S. and they have been killed by its allies and they have been killed by insurgents and sectarians in the civil wars spawned or fanned by the invasions and what followed.”

Civilians also die when the infrastructure is damaged or destroyed: water purification and sewage treatment, for example. Refugees from the violence often lose access to a stable food supply as well as jobs and income, resulting in malnutrition and vulnerability to disease. Loss of access to medical facilities leads to deaths that otherwise would not have happened.


The number of war refugees and displaced persons is estimated to be 7.4 million, the equivalent of everyone “in Oregon and Connecticut fleeing their homes.” In Baghdad, “internally displaced persons” often take refuge in bombed-out buildings devoid of water, electricity and sewage, miserable living conditions made worse by chronic unemployment. Individuals and families who flee Iraq and Afghanistan make their way to neighboring states including Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Iran, where they strain local resources, are often denied civil rights and services, and are resented by many inhabitants of these nations.

Environmental costs

The decade-long wars have resulted in an increase in carbon emissions. In 2008, the U.S. military used the equivalent of fuel to power 1.2 million cars for a year. A 2003 study concluded that two-thirds of the Army’s fuel consumption occurred in vehicles used to deliver fuel to the battlefield. “The military vehicles … produced many thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, nitrogen, oxides, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide in addition to CO2.” The wars have taken a heavy toll on forests, wetlands and marshes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Deforestation has occurred in part as a result of refugees cutting trees for fuel and building material. Bombing in Afghanistan has threatened at least one important migratory thoroughfare, reducing birds flying this corridor by an estimated 85 percent.

What the wars accomplished

Overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime was a good thing. Other than deposing a dictator, however, the gains have been few. The report notes the Iraq War reinvigorated radical Islamist militias in the region, was a setback for women’s rights and weakened an already poor health care system. According to Transparency International, Iraq is one of the eight most corrupt nations in the world. The Democracy Index classifies Iraq as a “hybrid” nation with a government between a “flawed democracy” and an “authoritarian regime.”

If the goal in Afghanistan was to defeat Al Qaeda, that mission was accomplished years ago. The success of “nation building” efforts is another matter. A study commissioned by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009 concluded that “widespread corruption and abuse of power exacerbate the popular crisis of confidence in the government and reinforce a culture of impunity.” On the Democracy Index, Afghanistan ranks 180 out of 182 nations, with only Somalia and North Korea less democratic.

While the cost of human suffering as a consequence of these wars is incalculable, the monetary cost is also near incomprehensible. How many schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, day-care centers and senior centers could have been built? How many bridges, roads and streets repaired? How many advances in medicine, possible breakthroughs in the wars against cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease could have been realized? How many jobs created? Make your own “could have” list, as $4 trillion goes a long way.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.


“Costs of War” (2013) Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, costsofwar.org