On Sept. 14, 2001, President George W. Bush visited the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center and addressed first responders working to clear debris and find victims of the attack. When one person shouted that he couldn't hear the president, Bush famously responded that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"
Fifteen years later, after protracted conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, as well as operations in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, Boston University analyst Neta Crawford with the Cost of War project has calculated the price of that promise.
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According to a study released Friday through Brown University's Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, government spending on the military, diplomacy, foreign aid, homeland security and services to veterans have cost U.S. taxpayers upward of $4.79 trillion in the post-Sept. 11 era.
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The accounting is much broader in its scope than typical war spending calculations, which generally focus on tallying the cost of bullets or battleships. It instead yields an imprecise figure in an attempt to find a truer dollar amount, despite even Congressional Budget Office declarations that "it is impossible to determine precisely how much has been spent" on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The study captures the immensity of America's commitments to defeating terrorism at home and abroad and the continuing financial toll that takes. It estimates that the cumulative interest the U.S. will have to pay for its wars will balloon to $7.9 trillion by 2053 if it does not change the way it pays for its wars.
The study also observes that current spending levels are conservative and don't account for the fact that President Barack Obama, for example, has failed to follow through on his pledges to further reduce the number of troops in war zones like Afghanistan.
Instead, the U.S. has held steady in Afghanistan and has increased its presence in Iraq as that country's shaky military prepares to take on the Islamic State group in the city of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad said that as of Thursday 4,460 declared U.S. forces are in Iraq, up from 4,000 the week before. The current cap Obama has placed on that campaign is 4,640, though commanders there are considering whether that should be raised. The numbers do not include the Pentagon's undeclared, or temporary, troops also contributing to the war.
"No set of numbers can convey the human toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or how they have spilled into the neighboring states of Syria and Pakistan, and come home to the U.S. and its allies in the form of wounded veterans and contractors," Crawford wrote. "Yet, the expenditures noted on government ledgers are necessary to apprehend, even as they are so large as to be almost incomprehensible."
The tally of $4.79 trillion comes from Pentagon and State Department spending for its emergency war budget, known formally as the Overseas Contingency Operations or OCO budget of $1.74 trillion since 2001. That budget itself has come under harsh criticism for becoming a slush fund for Congress to pay for other military-related spending as it grapples with the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. Other defense, homeland security and veterans affairs spending brings that total up to $3.69 trillion, with an additional $1.1 trillion in projected funding for the coming fiscal year.
Most of these OCO funds have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan, with $805 billion and $783 billion in spending, respectively and the rest dedicated to operations in Syria, Pakistan, joint counterterrorism operations with Canada known as Operation Noble Eagle and other miscellaneous missions.
Crawford's totals offer a sobering assessment as to how the U.S. should prepare when its leaders pledge swift, glorious wars performed on limited budgets. As she points out, "current and future costs of war greatly exceeds prewar and early estimates.
"Optimistic assumptions and a tendency to underestimate and undercount war costs have, from the beginning, been characteristic of the estimates of the budget costs and the fiscal consequences of these wars," she writes.
But the wars press on, questioning whether voters will have a chance to truly reflect on the decision to engage in conflict abroad as they consider two leading presidential candidates who have expressed their own interest in further overseas adventures.