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America's Costliest War

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Congress, the media, and the public are rightly asking whether America should be spending $1 billion or more on the intervention in Libya at a time of fiscal austerity. One member of Congress has even proposed that the mission be offset dollar for dollar by cuts in domestic programs (leaving the Pentagon and related security programs off limits).

While this newfound attention to the costs of U.S. global military operations is welcome, focusing on Libya alone misses the mark. The $1 billion in projected spending on Libya is just one tenth of one percent of the over $1 trillion the United States has spent so far on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Looked at another way, the likely costs of the Libyan mission are the equivalent of less than four days of spending on the war in Afghanistan.

And that's the point. Those genuinely concerned about war costs need to go where the money is -- Afghanistan. The Pentagon has asked for $113 billion to fight the war there for this year, roughly two and one-half times what has been requested to support the United States' dwindling commitment in Iraq. That gap will only increase as troop numbers in Iraq continue to fall. To put this in some perspective, the entire Gross Domestic Product of Afghanistan is about $29 billion per year, which means that annual U.S. expenditures on the war are nearly four times the value of the entire Afghan economy. That number would obviously change if the drug economy were taken into account, but it is stunning nonetheless.

The tax dollars being spent on Afghanistan are enough to offset the $100 billion per year that House Republicans are seeking to cut from next year's budget, or enough to fill the projected budget gaps of the 44 states that expect to run deficits in 2012. In other words, if the Afghan war ended and the funds allocated for it were returned to the states, no state in America would run a deficit next year. This would save millions of jobs of teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees while holding the line on basic services like Medicaid and income support for families in poverty. This would in turn be good for the economy as a whole. Military spending creates fewer jobs than virtually any other form of expenditure, from education to housing to transportation. So shifting funds away from war spending will result in a net increase in jobs nationwide.

Human Costs

But the dollar costs of the war in Afghanistan are not the only - or even the most important - consequences of the war. More than 1,500 U.S. soldiers have died since the start of the war, with nearly one-third of those deaths - 499 - occurring in 2010 alone. Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops have been wounded, with more than half of that total occurring in 2010. The figures on wounded military personnel don't take full account of traumatic brain injuries, which have been sustained by roughly one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. These injuries cover everything from mild concussions to seriously debilitating conditions requiring full-time care.

The rapid increase in deaths and injuries to U.S. military personnel caused by the Afghan war is primarily attributable to two factors: 1) the sharp increase in troops deployed, from 45,000 in May 2009 to 98,000 currently; and 2) the increase in incursions into Taliban-controlled areas where soldiers are more vulnerable to ambush and roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

As tragic as the figures for U.S. casualties are, they lag behind the deaths suffered by Afghan civilians as a result of the war. The United Nations estimates that over 2,700 Afghan civilians were killed in 2010 alone, for a total of six or seven every day. Over two-thirds of these deaths are as a result of actions by the Taliban, with 440 the result of action by U.S.-led coalition forces. To put that in perspective, nearly as many civilians died as a result of coalition actions in 2010 as did U.S. military personnel involved in combat.

Finally, there is the issue of suicides by U.S. troops involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have more than doubled since 2001, with 817 occurring during the first eight years of the war. In some months more U.S. military personnel have died from suicides than have died on the battlefield. While not all of these suicides are necessarily directly attributable to the wars, it is fair to assume that the bulk of them are, with one factor being multiple deployments within short time periods. These deployments mean that soldiers suffer longer exposures to the horrors of war, and put more strain on their families. Again, these must be major factors in the rise in suicides, although not the only ones.

The Bottom Line

Although there are occasional reports on the economic and human costs of the Afghan war in major media outlets, they are not done on the kind of consistent and comprehensive basis that would drive home the costs to the average citizen. Public opinion is already turning against the war. If people knew its true costs the scale of the opposition would grow dramatically.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011).