What did we buy with the $5 Trillion that the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars have cost us?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

A Boston U. political scientist estimates that as of 2016, The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have cost the American taxpayers $5 trillion. That number isn’t important when we consider the human cost– Some 7,000 US troops dead, 52,000 wounded in action; hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead who wouldn’t otherwise be, 4 million displaced and made homeless, etc.

Just to put that $5 trillion in perspective. Let’s say you chose five individuals. Each of the five will spend $10 million a day. That’s the cost of Heidi Klum’s mansion. They’d be buying the equivalent of five of those each day.

They’ll do that every day of their lives. All five of them. And then each of them will be succeeded by one their children, who will spend $10 million dollars a day, and one of their grandchildren, and one of their great-grandchildren, until 270 years have passed and it is the year 2286. That’s the equivalent of a stardate for Captain Picard of the Enterprise.


Neta Crawford, a professor of Political Science at Brown University published the study for Brown University’s Watson Institute.

Professor Crawford writes:

“As of August 2016, the US has already appropriated, spent , or taken on obligations to spend more than $ 3 . 6 trillion in current dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and o n Homeland Security ( 2001 through fiscal year 2016 ) . To t his total should be added the approximately $6 5 billion in dedicated war spending the Department of Defense and State Department have requested for the next fiscal year, 2017 , along with an additional nearly $3 2 billion requested for the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, and estimated spending on veterans in future years . When those are included , the total US budgetary cost of the wars reach es $4.79 trillion.”

The US has spent $1.7 trillion for combat and reconstruction. I have a sinking feeling that first they spent half of it on destroying things and then they spent the other half on rebuilding them.

Through 2053, the US government owes the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans $1 trillion in medical and disability payments along with the money to administer all that.

Crawford adds,

“Interest costs for overseas contingency operations spending alone are projected to add more than $1 trillion dollars to the national debt by 2023. By 2053 , interest costs will be at least $7.9 trillion unless the US changes the way it pays for the wars.”

Of 2.7 million military personnel who served in those two theaters, 2 million have now left the military and have entered the Veterans Administration system. Some 52,000 of them were wounded in action and many need care.

Because the Bush administration borrowed money to pay for the wars, we’ve paid half a trillion dollars in interest alone.

At least al-Qaeda had been based in Afghanistan. Iraq had had nothing to do with September 11. It was Bush’s invasion that brought al-Qaeda there, which later morphed into ISIL.

We were lied into that war, and it has weakened our economy. If anyone can tell me what benefit that war brought the average American, I’d like to hear it.

The Iraq War was a government-led Ponzi scheme and as usual the little people are the ones who took a bath.

52 Responses

  1. Thirteen years after the fact, those who have greatly enriched themselves by Bush’s war continue to reap further benefits thanks to Bush’s tax cuts. Malefactors of great wealth!

  2. Had the US spent the 4.79 trillion cost plus 7.9 trillion debt interest on programs for the world’s 1 billion poorest, about $13,000 per capita where annual costs of living may be a tenth of that, It would have built the roads, schools, and hospitals of the poorest nations, and would have no organized enemies anywhere. The US could have done that several times since WWII.

    But instead we have wars to rationalize giving all funds and even our basic rights to the warmongers, and this has made us enemies worldwide, destroying our security and our democracy,

    The warmongers must be prosecuted and executed for war crimes.

    • The U.S. has spent billions of dollars in foreign aid to underdeveloped countries since the end of World War II. The problem is not U.S. largesse; the problem is the countries receiving it have not developed the critical mass (Rule of Law, middle class, standard of living) that only they can achieve. We cannot achieve it for them. The suggestion that we can engage in successful “nation building” is a fraudulent argument. Nations are “built” when the population decides it wants to do so and the critical mass, described above, is reached. Otherwise, aid money contributes very little to long-term, sustained political, economic, and social maturity.

      • MOst of this foreign aid has been in the form of subsidies for US industries. Its hardly charity. PLus US was responsible for the lack of rule of law in Iraq by the destruction of the state and its infrastructure, standard victim blaming by a racist.

        • No, most of U.S. foreign aid has not been in the form of subsidies for U.S. industries. Do some research on U.S. aid around the world since World War II, and you will find most has been in the fields of health, governance, and infrastructure. The reason it hasn’t resulted in modernity is stated in my comment above.

          And we are not talking about just Iraq. We are talking about U.S. aid world wide over a long period of time.

          Finally, I would be very careful if I were you about who you are labeling a “racist.” You know nothing about me or anyone else, and that you would label someone a “racist” says a lot more about you than it does about your intended target.

        • Over 90% of USAID directly benefits US companies and the rest indirectly benefits them. Anecdoatally I know of USAID to pakistani universities for the science requires that they spend the money on US technology. DO some research Bill your embarrassing yourself.

        • “ USAID explained that “the principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programs has always been the United States.” Evidence from Haiti backs this up. For every $1 that USAID has spent, less than one penny went directly to Haitian organizations,”

          link to thenation.com

          I admit I’m not a political scientist but rather a doctor in chemistry, so i can’t speak for your supposed field of expertise but in our field we have to provide evidence for our assertions.

      • First, note that billions is .001 of trillions, and each billion since WWII is roughly one-fourth of one penny per capita per year, not “largesse” by any standard. US aid has never exceeded about one hamburger per year to the world’s neediest, which is not worth mentioning except in propaganda.

        No one but military propagandists argues that the developed world can merely install advanced institutions and understanding. These require cultivation of the soil with education, stability of food and housing and health, rule of law, etc. But we certainly can cultivate that soil; nations can be built with patience and realism.

        The “fraudulent argument” is the claim that we must wait until “the population decides it wants” to advance before preparing the soil. Do we wait for children to decide to wash their hands, to be nice to their competitors, to go to school, or do we reward them and make it more desirable for them to do so.

        To say that aid money “contributes very little” is completely false. That is true only when it is military aid, or when it is dumped on dictators as discretionary spending. Aid requires careful design, administration, monitoring, and adjustment to achieve results. That is not done because it is only used as propaganda.

        • Take a look at those countries that have succeeded in establishing democratic, economically viable societies and those that have not. You will find that those that succeed do so because they possess certain cultural characteristics and have reached a level of critical mass, mentioned above, that leads to sustained development.

          South Korea and Taiwan are good examples of those that succeed. They were poor in 1960. By the 1980s they had transitioned to democratic nation-states with booming economies. They did it as a result of their own efforts, not as a result of U.S. aid and hectoring about human rights.

      • I will add that if you budgeted our schools as you would budget foreign aid, you would have us provide one hamburger a year to each child, and let them roam and get into trouble with no school building, teachers, medical care, utilities, clothing, heat, or law enforcement. There’s your proud “largesse,” and I’ll bet you did not raise your children that way. So why can you not sympathize with the world’s neediest?

      • No.1 recipient of US aid is Israel, a rich country with a bad human rights record towards its native population, the Palestinians.
        Go figure.

    • Thanks, Joe. We lead the world in wasting money and destruction. Don’t worry, it will all be over before we know what happened.

  3. hello prof. cole.

    thank you for writing this. it can not be said enough. the crazy thing is that we are still wasting money blowing stuff up in iraq today, almost eight years after the reign of bush ended.

    you say “the little people TOOK a bath”, but we are still TAKING the bath. it is a never ending war. the tab is still running

    the pressing question is when does it end? if it was such a mistake, why are we forever committed to its continuation?

    the common answer is …”but now Isis must be defeated”. who is isis and where do they come from? are we really sure they were not in iraq in 2003? it would seem that their leader, for example, abu bakr al baghdadi, was in fact in iraq. he was born in samara, not that far from tikrit, saddam hussein’s hometown. is isis really that different than the baathists of saddam? saddam committed many atrocities within iraq for decades. he gassed civilians. he invaded neighbors. he conducted environmental warfare on a huge scale. he used tanks and helicopters to repress protest. his secret police was unparalleled for brutality. political executions were the daily norm. his son was a sociopathic murderer. etc.

    what makes isis so much worse than saddam? as far as i can tell they have killed no where near as many people to date.

    all the same, i still do not believe we should have wasted these trillions on our war.we have made things even worse for iraqis by amping up the violence.

    which is what we are still doing this very moment.

    time to stop.

    • “what makes isis so much worse than saddam?”

      ISIS attacks the United States. Saddam did not. Crucial difference.

      • oh yeah? you mean the nut job in florida? was he born in iraq? was he from samara? was he living in iraq?

        and even if isis had attacked us, which they have not, would it not be a justified response to having been invaded, bombed, and plundered without provocation?

        but mostly you miss the point, saddam and isis are the same, just different names.

        • You need to study your Near East history. To say that ISIS is the same as Saddam Hussein reveals a huge lack of knowledge.

        • Not for lack of trying. ISIS has attempted to influence home-grown terrorists to do its bidding. There is no better definition of hostility against the U.S.

    • I haven’t checked for a while, but I believe we already have 11 aircraft carriers. I believe the “whole rest of the world” has 11 aircraft carriers. So with 12, we will have more than all the rest of the world. Insane.

      • And why not add the Zumwalt DC 1000 class destroyer (?) type vessel (at 4 billion a copy) to your list of over the top and down the hole expenses for this junk.
        The list goes on ……

  4. It doesn’t matter how much we spent because we have our own currency, we own the printing presses, and finally it has caused almost no inflation…..Thoughts ?

    • The US government might be able to print more money to juggle the books, but it can’t “print” lives and body parts to make the dead and maimed whole again.

  5. sorry to go on…
    and so what is our current plan? when does it end? when mosul is destroyed? will it be over then? of course not.

    there is no endgame. the tab is running. the tap is running. the tub has overflowed a long time ago.

    we are still taking the bath. we are asleep in the tub.


  6. The best way to determine the actual cumulative cost before inflation of the so-callied War on Terror since 9/11 is to combine the total Federal budget expenditures for Defense, intelligence, Veterans’ Affairs, and national security costs allocated to the Justice and Energy Departments for the fiscal year ended 10/31/01 and calculate this figure as a percentage of U.S. GDP in 2001. The next step would be to apply this percentage figure to actual U.s. GDP for every year since 9/11 and combine these figures. The result would be what the U.S. would have spent on national security if 9/11 had never occurred. Lastly, you would total all of the actual Federal budget expenditures for the above Departments since 9/11. The difference between the latter figure and the cumulative figure of what would have been spent without 9/11 is the actual cumulative cost of the senseless War on Terror. I would bet the figure is around $7 trillion and this is without adding on guesses about future veteran’s costs and inferred interest costs tied to the additions to national debt stemming from these national security costs. The final financial cost to the U.S. economy could then be inflation adjusted.

  7. That’s $5 trillion for Iraq and Afghanistan alone.

    When you include all the defense-related things like intelligence, NATO, USAID, military excursions, etc, it’s more like $38,655,190,993,638 ($38.65 trillion) since 2001. link to newdealprogressives.org

    And that’s a ballpark estimate.

    I’ve showed Professor Crawford my figures a couple of months ago.

    Also, under Bush, the US had wars in 4 countries; under Obama it has been 18 countries.
    link to newdealprogressives.org

    Btw, there’s also this:
    link to nationalpriorities.org

  8. We bought everything we wanted to buy!
    No one forced us.
    We have our own prior actions to point to as motivations.
    Look at the candidates/sociopaths/warmongers that we have chosen so far.
    We have purchased exactly what we have wanted!
    If you’re no happy – Protest Loudly.

  9. In the meantime, according to the Society of Civil Engineers, we could have spent, instead, 2-3 Trillion to upgrade the country’s infrastructure from grades of F and D to C. Think about all the good paying construction jobs that could provide. But, nooooooooo. That would be too much government.

  10. WHy do people always mention the number of dead and wounded American soldiers before they mention the number of dead Iraqis?

    • tribalism. we matter. they don’t. we have a pow mia flag flying over federal monuments and infrastructure. who gives a crap for the insane numbers of laoations, cambodians, and vietnamese we killed. all that matters is that a few pilots of helicopters and jets got shot down over the jungle and the military was unable top locate them. and what were they doing when they were shot down? protecting our way of life? keeping us free? of course not. they were killing people in their homes.

    • Because in the minds of “exceptional” Americans non-Americans are nobodies, something like the Nazis’ Untermenschen.

    • Only because the most ignorant and irresponsible members of any potential audience – the ones who need the education – don’t count any casualties among those for whom they have no sympathy. They will stop reading when they hear about foreign casualties, having been trained in blaming victims. Give them the US body count first, and they might actually see a connection with other body counts.

    • “WHy do people always mention the number of dead and wounded American soldiers before they mention the number of dead Iraqis?”

      Because we are the United States, not Iraq.

      • Its consistent in European media as well. Plus these are the victims of the United States.

        • The U.S. is not unique in this regard. Every nation, whether it be Algeria, Togo, Russia, or Zambia, if engaged in hostilities will always be more concerned about its own casualties than those of its opponent. that is just the nature of the beast.

        • You obviously didn’t understand what I wrote, even in European newspapers they list american dead before Iraqis, even though they died in higher number and are non-combatants (and are actual victims of a war crime). And even if it was the case that this was standard ethnocentrism, it doesn’t make it acceptable and shouldn’t excused. No decent human being would mention the number of dead concentration and death camp guards before they mentioned the number of holocaust victims.

        • “No decent human being would mention the number of dead concentration and death camp guards before they mentioned the number of holocaust victims.”

          No, he wouldn’t, because he would recognize that comparing concentration camp holocaust victims and their camp guards to Iraqi deaths and American troops is to compare apples and oranges.

        • Only apple and oranges to a racist who doesnt see the difference between oppressores and oppressed. CLutching at straws here mate your embarrassing yourself, Bill.

  11. I remember when Junior Bush used 9/11 as an excuse for coming up 2-3 percentage points in GDP short during the ’04 election, and ‘Sama was on the Audiotape Network within a few weeks chortling about what a big return on investment he got for the $250,000 operation. Was he ever lowballing his epic (in the sense that historic epics involving prolonged hegemony come to an end) ‘achievement.

  12. Hi Prof Cole,
    I think there’s a typo in there. You write “The US has spent $1.7 billion for combat and reconstruction.”
    Shouldn’t that be $1.7 trillion? That’s the number I saw here: link to google.com

  13. Never fear! Relatively little of this money was actually spent on the countries in question. Almost all of it went to U.S. contractors and sub-contractors. Take a drive sometime along the VA side of the Potomac from Arlington to Reston and take a look at the splendid properties to be found en route. Who are their owners? Most likely generals, neocons, lobbyists, and others of the well-connected who pushed their way again and again through the revolving door of government “service” and government contracting. It’s all just money decreed into existence and added to the national debt and winds up in the pockets of the well-connected. I myself was on a contract in Iraq for nearly six years and saw the whole thing. But I was on a meager and humble contract, not one of the whale-sized contracts that swallowed vast sums whole! These endless conflicts are just programs of creating new government debt to enrich the well-connected. Anyone who believes otherwise is simply a fool. In fact, get this: Some of the money that was spent in-country wound up in the hands of al-Qaida or other insurgents, who would then use it to manufacture IEDs to kill our own soldiers. Is there any other people on the face of the earth stupid enough to finance the killing of their own kids? It may be unpleasant to have to admit it, but the fact is that Americans are the dumbest customers in the world!

  14. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex has never looked more accurate. I have a feeling these relationships with business and , more and more, with universities will drive this perennial war. What bothers me so much is that the American people don’t seem to care. Hillary’s war-mongering is hardly discussed. It’s like a discussion of foreign policy is off the table. No matter how important domestic policy and Supreme Court appointments are, to me they pale in comparison to our penchant for global domination and our devotion to fossil fuels, two subjects not discussed here. Whys is the European public so much more mature in facing up to these issues. I mean they’re almost at the point of skewering Blair for his Iraq adventures. At least 50 percent of all the American people belong in that ‘basket of deplorables’.

  15. The Israeli think tank “The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies ” which produced the policy document
    “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” in 1996 proposed among many things,
    the following:

    “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”

    Some of the authors of this policy of massive destabilization and destruction in the Middle East migrated to another policy group, namely the “Project for the New American Century” which strongly advocated for regime change in Iraq, the journey was not over, 10 of the 25 co-signers of the PNAC found positions in Geoge W Bush’s administration.

    While it’s clear many U.S. War profiteers benefited and continue to do so from the horrific death and destruction in the Middle East the policy idea seems to have come from an Israeli think tank, which was then supported by those who felt destabilization of the middle east was good for Israel, US oilmen and war profiteers. We bought no good thing with this epic debacle , of course many Americans struggle to find Iraq on a map but the people who produced this war seem to have gotten much of what they were looking for.

  16. The money lost is really minor compared to the loss of our democracy. We now have a fourth branch of Government that is neither elected, impeachable or in any way accountable to the citizens: The Military.
    I was a Sargent in the Marines, 1965-69 with a year in Vietnam and I’m not talking about the brave young men and women who fill the ranks and do the fighting and dyeing, it the arrogant, ignorant, corrupt “Professional Officer Corps” that has lead and lied the country into every insane military blunder since Vietnam.
    Now we are looking to a Hillary Clinton Presidency. Mrs. Clinton is so out of touch with reality that after supporting our debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria she supported doing the same thing over again in Libya.
    We seem to be in a death spiral with oil wars and our “Finest Fighting force in the world” that can’t even control tiny, poor , primitive Afghanistan just going on and on while the Political Class cheers our monumental failures and promises more of the same.

  17. Great post, Prof. Cole. Unfortunately, many Americans are innumerate, as well as illiterate. They have no concept of numbers and the relative costs of things the government spends money on. They have been hornswaggled and bamboozled by the right-wing noise machine to believe that all their tax dollars go to welfare, not to the military. I had a conservative friend tell me that, red-faced, “if we didn’t give all our money to welfare deadbeats, our military would have the money they need to win these wars!” As if the Pentagon has to hold up bombing sorties due to lack of funding. People are ignorant.

  18. What did we buy with the $5 Trillion that the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars have cost us?

    After killing so many innocent Iraqi’s & Afghans in hundreds of thousands and losing some 7000 US soldiers & 52,000 wounded, we did not buy anything, but created Taliban, ISIS & others those are fighting now with US forces.

    After so much death & destruction, one does not sit on the table to buy things, rather one dictates terms favorable to the invaders or just loot & plunder the resources of the defeated party. At the same time, install someone who is obeying the demands of the invader.

    Few years ago, there was a study published indicating that Afghanistan has trillions of dollars worth of minerals at the height of war in Afghanistan. While the war is still raging, why the minerals study worth trillions of dollars came out? Either to plunder the resources or have very favorable terms & conditions to loot the poor country. Just few companies like Halliburton & others will make billions of dollars.

    I happened to take a walk yesterday on the magnificent mile of the Michigan Ave, the heart of down town Chicago. Lovely shops buildings. Among all this frivolous luxurious shops, I observed homeless people sitting on every corner. I bet quite a few must be veterans of these wars on which US has spent trillions of dollars. Millions of refugees arriving in Europe created by these wars.

    No matter who wins the coming elections, the wars will not end. Why, because war criminals from U.S & UK are not brought to justice. Bush once said that,”Neither international law nor U.S law applied to him or his administration”.

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