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Here’s How Much the Afghanistan War Cost Taxpayers

August 18, 2021 by Reece Nations
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, enters a plane evacuating people, at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (Capt. William Urban/U.S. Navy via AP )

Costs associated with the United States’ “Global War on Terror” have mounted significantly in the nearly 20 years following the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.

The underlying mission of the Global War on Terror in 2001 was to fortify the U.S.’s national security against future attacks by al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, culminating in military operations across 80 countries including Afghanistan. But prolonged post-9/11 military interventions were continuously financed not through the issuing of war bonds or by raising taxes, but through borrowing funds from both domestic and foreign sources that accrue interest over time.

Direct war-related spending by the Department of Defense and the State Department has already incurred $2 trillion in debt and cumulative interest payments of $925 billion, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project.

“The real costs of war are the human lives lost and the physical and mental traumas experienced by soldiers, their families, and the combatants and civilians in war-torn areas,” Heidi Peltier, assistant research professor of Boston University’s Department of Political Science and project director of the Costs of War Project, wrote in a Jan. 2020 analysis of post-9/11 war spending. 

“The Costs of War project estimates that globally, direct war deaths in the post-9/11 wars [primarily Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and others] total approximately 800,000 lives lost. For the U.S., estimates of the human toll include over 7,000 soldiers and nearly 8,000 contractors and civilians killed, in addition to the physical and mental disabilities not included in the number of casualties.”

The Cost of War Project researchers’ total of $2 trillion cumulative incurred between 2001 and 2019 was calculated by combining the annual sums of the U.S. military’s “Overseas Contingency Operations” funding provided through both the Department of Defense and the Department of State, and other emergency supplemental funding. However, the cumulative total rises to $5.4 trillion when portions of the DOD budget attributable to war, the cost of veterans’ care, homeland security and other war-related expenses plus interest are added to its total.

Future costs of veterans’ care over the next several decades are projected to add another $1 trillion to this figure, bringing the cumulative total to roughly $6.4 trillion. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that the cost of caring for post-9/11 veterans with traumatic brain injuries between 2020 to 2029 will be $2.4 billion.

“Not only has the U.S. spent nearly $3 trillion [including interest] on war that this country could instead have spent on energy, infrastructure, education, and so forth, but Americans are going to continue to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on interest payments alone, rising to trillions of dollars over the decade,” Peltier said in the report. 

“By 2030, Americans will have spent over $2 trillion on interest alone, not for anything productive or even any military action that could ostensibly make us safer and more secure. The costs to the country are thus more than simply the funds used on war versus on peaceful activities, but they are even more importantly the funds wasted on interest payments rather than on productive investments, useful programs, or lower taxes.”

The prevalence of deficit spending has increased in this time as federal spending has outpaced federal revenues. In 2020, the national debt equated to 127% of the nation’s gross domestic product.

While around a quarter of that figure is intragovernmental debt, public debt held both within the U.S. and abroad in the form of securities, pension funds, mutual funds, and other public holdings, was equivalent to about 80% of the nation’s GDP as of 2020.

As of Aug. 2019, about one-third of foreign-held U.S. Treasury securities were carried by Japan and China, at about 17% and 16% of the holdings respectively. Interest payments on foreign-held debt inevitably end up being paid by U.S. taxpayers, whereas the interest payments would otherwise amount to domestic transfers from all taxpayers to individuals who hold U.S. treasuries.

Around 40% of the country’s public debt was held by foreign institutions and individuals in 2020, and that figure stands to grow more as federal borrowing increases. As deficit spending becomes the new norm in federal financing, wars will continue to be financed with public debt.

While war is not the only contributor to the national debt, the over $2 trillion in spending since 2001 on Overseas Contingency Operations raised the national debt by the same amount. 

“While the existence or growth of debt may or may not be problematic in and of itself, it is nonetheless useful to question whether debt is being wisely used,” Peltier said. “Policymakers should assess what the debt is being used for, whether it is productive, whether it will repay itself, or at the very least whether it will improve quality of life for both current and future generations. In other words, what is the opportunity cost?”

Peltier concludes in the report, “If we spent less on wars, thus reducing future indebtedness and lowering interest payments, funds could be used for other federal programs such as infrastructure repair, energy security, education, or health care.” 

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