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Watson initiative presents Costs of War findings in D.C.

Costs of War team studies human, fiscal costs of U.S. conflicts in Middle East post-9/11

The United States has contributed $5.9 trillion to post-9/11 wars that have resulted in around 500,000 casualties, according to two studies produced by the Costs of War initiative from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. The Costs of War team reported its findings to government staffers and media outlets in a Washington D.C. briefing hosted by Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, Nov. 14.

One study titled “Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency,” found that “between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” including casualties in the U.S. military, opposition groups, national militaries and other groups.

Of these casualties, approximately 250,000 people killed were civilians.

The figure does not, however, include the nearly 500,000 people who have died in Syria, according to the study.

This tally of total casualties may be an undercount due to “limits in reporting,” wrote Neta Crawford, one of the program directors and a professor of political science at Boston University, in the recent study. 

“These human casualties are the heart of the problem,” said Catherine Lutz, a program director for the Costs of War and professor of anthropology and international studies. Too often, the human costs of war are invisible to most Americans, even as these wars escalate, Lutz said. “What’s surprising is that it continues. The level of violence in Afghanistan is actually higher than it was last year; the war is intensifying, even as it falls off the radar of Americans.”

The other study produced by the initiative estimated that the United States has spent $5.9 trillion on post-9/11 wars, which  reflects war-related portions of the Department of Defense’s budget, spending on terrorism prevention by the Department of Homeland Security, future obligations for veterans care and interest on debt incurred to pay for wars in the Middle East since the attacks on 9/11, said Stephanie Savell, a program director for the Costs of War.

The Costs of War’s finding greatly exceeds the Pentagon’s estimate of $1.5 trillion in total spending, which only considers “overseas contingency operations,” and not other costs such as interest on borrowed funds or spending on veterans, Savell said.

Crawford, emphasized the “unique way” in which the government has funded these wars. “Normally, the United States either raises taxes or has the public participate by buying war bonds, … but now essentially the United States has turned to deficit spending to pay for these wars. That’s a problem,” Crawford said.

By the mid-2020s, spending on interest will exceed actual spending on the wars themselves, according to data from the Costs of War study that addresses the financial costs of the United States’ military conflicts. “Yet, the United States continues to conduct these wars on a credit card and the interest to pay for these wars will dwarf the expenditures on the next wars,” Crawford said.

Crawford added that she expects spending to increase further in order to care for wounded or disabled veterans. “The (veterans) most directly impacted should be concerned that there are enough resources to take care of the obligations that the United States took on for their care,” she said.

The Costs of War directors hope that bringing both human-related and economic costs into the public conversation will help to end these “needless wars,” Savell said.

“What we’ve shown in the project and what I’ve learned again and again is that projections of speed, efficiency, effectiveness were overly optimistic by orders of magnitude,” Crawford said. “We should be skeptical in any future war of any promises. These wars are never quick and easy.”

The United States’ intentions to promote a “wave of democratization” throughout the Middle East have also fallen short of promised goals, Crawford said. “Despite the hopes that the (United States) would change the way politics in the Middle East is conducted, the use of force does not promote democracy. It hasn’t and, in fact, it probably can’t ever promote democracy.”

The Costs of War project — which began preliminary research in 2010 — aims to engender a “more informed democratic citizenry” through its findings, Lutz said. “Ultimately, better information will lead to better policy.”

These wars are the “longest and most expensive wars the United States has engaged in since its founding,” Crawford said. As such, the Costs of War team hopes that its findings will put pressure on lawmakers to increase transparency and “hold the government accountable” for its actions abroad, Savell said.

Future research conducted by the Costs of War project will focus on the “opportunity costs of military spending, civilian casualties and indirect harm to individuals,” Crawford said.


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