900,000 Dead and $10 Trillion: The Cost of American Wars in the Middle East

More than 10 trillion Canadian dollars, or $8 trillion American: That is the estimated cost for the United States of the wars waged in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Conflicts have also killed between 897,000 and 929,000 people.

The American intervention and occupation in Afghanistan have just ended with the withdrawal of the last troops from the airport in Kabul. The war will remain the longest in the history of the United States, a strong and militarized republic involved in close to 100 conflicts since its revolutionary foundation at the end of the 18th century.

These dizzying figures on the financial and human costs of recent wars were revealed Wednesday morning by the Costs of War project associated with the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs of Brown University, in [Providence]. The research group was founded in 2010 in order to document the price of conflicts in the Middle East.

The project regularly publishes summaries, as well as sector-specific analyses. It is the top think tank in the United States on the direct impact of the conflicts.

“Let me call your attention to the size and scale of the number of $8 trillion,” commented Linda Bilmes, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, during an online press conference.

She then offered an image that she presents to her students. “If you had 1,000 dollar bills, $1 million would be 4.3 inches high, $1 billion would be 358 feet high — about the height of the Statute of Liberty — and $1 trillion would be 67 miles high.” It would reach the Kármán line, which designates the limit between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

“With $1 trillion, what can you buy?” Bilmes also asked. “With $1 trillion, if you trust the infrastructure bill recently adopted by Congress, you can repair the roads, bridges, tunnels, electrical lines, clean the garbage dumps and provide rapid internet service to rural communities nationwide, and still more things.”*

Very Modest Estimates

The astronomical bill for these wars truly reflects the anticipated expenses in support of former combatants in the coming decades. But most of the projections cease to do so beyond 2050, while it is known that the physical and psychological impacts will continue to make themselves felt.

In these wars as in all others, it is very young adults who are sent to the front: The most recently wounded will only be in their 50s in the middle of the century.

Moreover, Bilmes reminds us that the payments in aid to veterans in World War I reached their maximum in 1969, and those earmarked for former combatants of World War II did the same in the 1990s. Aid to participants in the Vietnam War will reach its peak only in the coming years.

The usual evaluations concentrate instead on expenditures made without taking into account the required financial undertakings once the conflict is over. In its own economic documents, the American defense headquarters, the Pentagon, contents itself with adding up the budgets allocated by Congress to pursue military operations.

The scholars of the Costs of War project, therefore, add to these the direct costs “borne by foreign interventions” (Overseas Contingency Operations, or CCO, in the jargon of the Defense Department) the additional sums of the current Pentagon budget and programs for veteran support.

The breakdown of costs thus shows that the conflict in Afghanistan (which has also affected neighboring Pakistan) will, in the end, cost $2.3 trillion; the Iraq conflict, $2.1 trillion. Other conflict zones have eaten up some $355 billion. Add to that $1.1 trillion in domestic security expenses and $2.2 trillion in veterans’ aid, for a total sum of some $8 trillion.

“The Tomb of Afghans”

The human cost of these conflicts is also extremely heavy, according to the report of the Costs of War project.

On the American side, 7,052 soldiers and 8,189 military contractors lost their lives in Middle East wars — basically, two times more in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Thirteen Marines died last Thursday in an attack on the airport in Kabul. And according to the American Veterans Administration, around 3,000 former combatants in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have committed suicide over the past 20 years. Allies of the United States have also paid the price of these conflicts, for example, Canada, with its estimated 160 deaths.

Of course, there are not only American victims, even if the country’s media have masked this reality, as Catherine Lutz of Boston University reminds us. The Costs of War project report estimates that at least 387,072 civilian and 301,933 enemy combatants — a vaguely defined term — have been killed during American military operations in the Middle East, a toll to which one must add 892 humanitarian workers and 680 journalists.

“Afghanistan is not only the graveyard of empires: It is the graveyard of Afghans,” Lutz sums up.

The impacts on the millions of family members of these nearly one million direct victims cannot be counted. Nor can the rest of the impacts of war, always conducted in order to kill people and to destroy things, according to the classical definition. Preceding wars have perhaps killed more Americans — more than 47,000 in Vietnam alone — but the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have shattered more lives, Lutz adds.

“Yesterday, President Biden said that the war in Afghanistan is over,” Maha Hilal, co-director of the collective Justice for Muslims, commented. “I ask: For whom? Is it over for the Afghans? Is it over for the Iraqis?”

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted passage could not be independently verified.

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