After the United States pulled out of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan Aug. 30, in his remarks on the end of the war, President Joe Biden cited the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs’ Costs of War project and its findings that “more than $2 trillion (was) spent in Afghanistan” while explaining his refusal to deploy “another generation of America’s sons and daughters” to the 20-year-long war.
The Costs of War project was founded in 2010 by Catherine Lutz, professor of anthropology and international studies, and Neta Crawford ’85, professor and chair of political science at Boston University. The project aims to be a useful addition to the “United States’ and the world’s understanding of war,” Crawford told The Herald.
“It was 10 years into the post-9/11 wars and there really wasn’t a discussion in the public (asking) … ‘what are we doing still at war?’” and probing deeper into the costs of these wars, said Stephanie Savell PhD ’17, a co-director of the project who joined in 2017.
The Costs of War project has assessed that the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere have cost $8 trillion so far, which includes $2.2 trillion in funds for medical care and disability payments for veterans that have not yet been paid out, Savell said. The project calculates the human death toll to be “up to 929,000 people killed directly through the weapons of war,” she added. This number does not include those killed indirectly, such as through environmental contamination, displacement and destruction of infrastructure, she said.
“Civilians in the war zones are really the ones who bear the brunt of war,” Savell said. “So it’s important not to just look at economic costs, but the human and social and political costs as well.”
“The Bush administration at the time was probably deliberately understating the true costs by a significant amount,” said Linda Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, who is a project contributor. The war in Afghanistan was funded through emergency money, which “doesn’t go through the regular budget process,” she said. “Every single year, it was being budgeted for and paid for as if it were a one-off cost that would somehow disappear the following year, which enabled the defenders of the war in the (Bush) administration and in Congress to sustain the pretense that the war was about to be over.”
Reflecting on the cost and effectiveness of the Afghanistan war, Savell said that these wars have not only been enormously costly, but “incredibly counterproductive.” Research shows that “a military approach” to terrorism “historically has only been effective in about seven percent of cases,” she said, citing a statistic from the book “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida.”
“War is never controllable in the way that advocates of war believe that it will be,” Crawford added, pointing to the inadvertent consequences that two decades of war can cause.
Currently, more than 50 scholars have contributed research to the Costs of War project. “They come from all the social science disciplines, including economists, political scientists, anthropologists like myself … and (also) contributions from human rights practitioners and physicians,” Savell said.
“Our papers are really geared toward the public audience and informing the public about oftentimes deeper and lesser-known costs of war,” she said. Contributors provide full documentation of source data to ensure veracity, Bilmes said.
An upcoming research paper from the project will look at the different perspectives that governments use to address the problem of terrorism, of which the war paradigm is just one approach. These alternative methods include policing and surveillance, in addition to rights-based approaches such as disarmament and conflict resolution.
Noting the absence of any large-scale terror attacks in the United States since 9/11, Crawford said, “it’s possible that the Homeland Security efforts that the United States has made, for instance inspecting every container that enters into the U.S., inspecting every person that enters, engaging in law enforcement to deter, detect, prevent, disrupt and counter terror attacks, has been effective.”
Looking forward after the Afghanistan War
“The purpose of the project has been to increase transparency about what the real costs of the war are … It’s very dangerous to minimize the costs of war because it makes it much easier to go to war and easier to prolong wars if people don’t understand the total costs,” Bilmes said. These costs are not “immediately obvious” because of government strategies to underestimate them and issues with the reporting process, she added.
Sher Jan Ahmadzai, the director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha, wrote in an email to The Herald that projects like Costs of War “improve transparency and accountability among the circles who spend public funds or fund wars.”
Savell said she was proud that Biden used the project’s data. Crawford reiterated that “the work that we do and any satisfaction we derive, is from helping the general public, the policymakers, understand what it is we’ve done, what the consequences of those policies and practices are and what potential alternatives there are to the present course.”
Ahmadzai suggested that, in the future, the project differentiate “between what actually was spent on the ground in Afghanistan and what actually was the administrative cost that was billed.” He cited a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that found that, for some stabilization programs funded by the U.S., up to 75% of funding was spent on administrative costs for contractors.
The project will continue to focus on how “these post-9/11 wars stretch far beyond Afghanistan and operate in many parts of the world,” Savell said. “We need to keep holding the government accountable for these actions.”