The Bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars: $4 to $6 Trillion
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The Bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars: $4 to $6 Trillion

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A recent report from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Linda Blimes put the combined cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at somewhere between $4 and $6 trillion dollars.

The report, The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets presents some fascinating insights to the true long term costs of both wars.

The abstract of the report reads as almost a cautionary tale for future American administrations who might be considering some sort of long term intervention:

“The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in U.S. history – totaling somewhere between $4 to $6 trillion. This includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs. The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid. Since 2001, the U.S. has expanded the quality, quantity, availability and eligibility of benefits for military personnel and veterans. This has led to unprecedented growth in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense budgets. These benefits will increase further over the next 40 years. Additional funds are committed to replacing large quantities of basic equipment used in the wars and to support ongoing diplomatic presence and military assistance in the Iraq and Afghanistan region. The large sums borrowed to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will also impose substantial long-term debt servicing costs. As a consequence of these wartime spending choices, the United States will face constraints in funding investments in personnel and diplomacy, research and development and new military initiatives. The legacy of decisions taken during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will dominate future federal budgets for decades to come.”

Of note are the long term health care costs for service men and women who fought in these conflicts. Many soldiers are suffering from the effects of PTSD, dramatic brain injury, the loss of a limb or severe physical limitations. Many are unable to work and will require disability compensation for the rest of their lives. Indeed, the costs for such care and much needed benefits can will continue to mount for the foreseeable future.

As the report points out:

“The single largest accrued liability of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the cost of providing medical care and disability benefits to war veterans. Historically, the bill for these costs has come due many decades later. The peak year for paying disability compensation to World War I veterans was in 1969 – more than 50 years after Armistice. The largest expenditures for World War II veterans were in the late 1980. Payments to Vietnam and first Gulf War veterans are still climbing.”

While overall deaths from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were low compared to the Vietnam War, part of this can be attributed to advances in medical technology to treat gravely wounded soldiers, leading to many lives saved. While this is a truly amazing accomplishment, the costs for aftercare are certain to be with the United States for a long time to come.

The report’s conclusion is also quite ominous:

“What did we buy for $4 trillion? The U.S. still faces a perilous international security situation and a fragile economy. Today as the country considers how to improve its balance sheet, it could have been hoped that the ending of the wars would provide a peace dividend, such as the one during the Clinton administration that helped Americans to invest more in butter and less in guns.

Instead, the legacy of decisions made during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts will impose significant long-term costs on the federal government, and in particular, on the consolidated national security budget.”

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