The Endless $1.6 Trillion War on Terror
Policy + Politics

The Endless $1.6 Trillion War on Terror

The U.S. is increasingly coming to grips with the terrible costs of the post-9/11 war on terror that has gone on for over a decade – with no end in sight.

American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq total 6,845 men and women, according to the latest official tally, while more than a million troops were wounded in both wars. The Senate Intelligence Committee recently released a startling 528-page document that chronicled the CIA’s often brutal and secretive tactics in interrogating terrorism suspects that for many ran counter to American values.

Related: The New U.S. Price Tag for the War Against ISIS: $40 Billion a Year  

Now the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has provided a new accounting of the cost of wars in the Middle East between 2001 and 2014 – interventions that have been more expensive than the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 all rolled into one – and adjusted for inflation. 


The more we spend on fighting terrorism and stabilizing the Mideast, the less we invest in developing our own country and helping its people. Infrastructure, technology, education and other advances are taking a back seat to a war without end.

The government has spent $1.6 trillion on warfare since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington – a staggering sum that works out to about $337 million a day every day for the past 13 years. By contrast, the U.S. spent $341 billion of inflation-adjusted dollars waging war on North Korea between 1950 and 1953, $38 billion on the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1975, and $102 billion on the first Persian Gulf War. 

This new total is about half a trillion dollars more than when the CRS last tried estimating the overall cost in 2010. The entire tab for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom and related military action was placed on the government’s credit card. In other words, the money going to the war through a special “Overseas Contingency Account” was added directly to the federal debt.  

“All of these figures do not take into account the long-term consequences, in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder or long-term veterans’ bills,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations and military history at American University. “The costs go on. Iraq and Afghanistan will end up being the gift that keeps on giving because – as we did with Vietnam – we will be living with the consequences for many, many years.”

Related: Can the U.S. Defeat ISIS Without a War Powers Deal? 

The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package passed by Congress and signed by President Obama sets aside $554 billion for defense spending through next Sept. 30, including $490 billion for running the Pentagon and buying weapons and $64 billion for the war effort. That total represents an $18 billion decrease from fiscal 2014 spending, according to the Military Times, reflecting Obama’s drawdown of troops from Afghanistan as he tries – not always successfully – to wind down that episode of the war on terrorism. 

The new CRS report found that slightly more than half the $1.6 trillion in total spending went to military operations in Iraq, where allied forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and then waged war for years in a desperate effort to prop up a new government. An additional $686 billion was spent on U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, which began with U.S. forces seeking to hunt down Osama bin Laden and others behind the 9/11 attacks. 

The wars seem to go on forever – though overall U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq began to decline at the tail end of President George W. Bush’s second term and early on in the Obama administration. Over time, annual war costs declined from a peak of $195 billion in FY2008 to $95 billion enacted in FY2014, the CRS said.

Under the latest timetable outlined by Obama last May, the 32,000 American troops now in Afghanistan will drop to 9,800 after this year. That number would then be cut in half by the end of 2015. If all goes as planned, there would be only a small residual force to protect the embassy in Kabul by the end of 2016. At the height of American involvement, in 2011, the U.S. had 101,000 troops there.

Related: McCain Moves Center Stage on War and Foreign Policy   

The withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq began in December 2007 with the end of the so-called troop surge. It was completed by December 2011, which technically brought an end to the Iraq War. The number of U.S. military forces in Iraq peaked at 170,300 in November 2007. Yet with security conditions deteriorating, U.S. forces returned last summer under a new Iraq Status of Force agreement.

With al-Qaeda and the Taliban still a deadly force in Afghanistan and ISIS claiming vast swaths of Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration and Congress are bracing for what may be a much longer engagement in the Middle East. 

“It’s like we cannot get out of there,” said Adams, the military expert. “The entire Afghan army and police force rely on U.S. and other international dollars for their salaries. And the Iraqis are going to rely on us for aerial bombardments to deal with the ISIS crisis.” 

Adams added, “This long-term crisis is in part a direct outgrowth of the U.S.’s decision particularly to take down Saddam Hussein. We’re going to live with that for God knows how many years because it created an instability in the heart of the region that is now spilling over everywhere.” 

Related: The War Against ISIS Will Explode Our Nation’s Debt    

Last week, a Pentagon official said that since August, the government has spent more than $1 billion on airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and parts of Syria. The administration also said it was deploying another 1,300 troops to Iraq as advisers, bringing to 3,000 the total number of U.S. advisory troops in Iraq. 

Obama has vowed not to send in ground troops to try to weed out or destroy ISIS, but Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and many other leading Republicans say it will be impossible to defeat ISIS with airstrikes alone. 

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