Costs of war

As rightist ideologues push the US towards a debt crisis in order to maintain tax breaks for the rich, it’s worth reflecting on the costs of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A sizable chunk of the $14 trillion owed by the US government comes from those wars. Costs of War, a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University (directed by Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz), estimates the cumulative economic cost of the wars as up to $4 trillion.

What has this spending accomplished? While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy, both Afghanistan and Iraq continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom and high in rankings of corruption. US-supported warlords continue to hold power in Afghanistan and Iraqi communities are more segregated by gender and ethnicity than before the war.

The project’s findings show that the $4 trillion is only one of the costs:

  • A conservative count of war dead, in uniform and out, is 225,000. The armed conflict in Pakistan, in which the U.S. funds, equips, and trains the Pakistani military, has now taken as many lives as the one in Afghanistan.
  • Almost 8 million people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.
  • The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.
  • The ripple effects on the US and world economy have been significant, including job loss, interest charges on the national debt, and cuts to funding for scientific development, education, and health care.

Alternatives to war were barely considered. A Rand report on 268 groups using terror tactics (How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki) showed that several approaches have been much more effective than military responses at eliminating future attacks. 40% of the groups were eliminated through intelligence and policing methods; 43% ended their violence as a result of peaceful political accommodation; 10% ceased their violent activity because they had achieved their objectives; and only 7% were defeated militarily.

The lesson here is not that we should default on the debt because much of it was money we shouldn’t have spent. Doing so will just misery to misery. Instead, this is a time for a compromise on the budget that includes acknowledging what’s already been spent, cutting future spending, eliminating dysfunctional tax deductions, and implementing truly progressive tax rates. In a stagnant economy, there is a strong case for increased spending, not on wars, but on infrastructure and jobs that would actually reduce the debt in the long run.

But whatever other lessons we might draw about the budget, there is a lesson that resorting to violence costs everyone in the end.

Preserving the $ by invading Iraq

This is old news, but I was reminded of it by a discussion on this weekend. It’s worth thinking about again in these parlous economic times.

Sharma, Tracy, and Kumar (2004) talk about one of the major, but little-discussed reasons for invading Iraq. Is militarism the best way to boost our economy?

What prompted the U.S. attack on Iraq, a country under sanctions for 12 years (1991-2003), struggling to obtain clean water and basic medicines? A little discussed factor responsible for the invasion was the desire to preserve “dollar imperialism” as this hegemony began to be challenged by the euro.


Caryl, Christian (2009, October 16). Decline of the dollar. Foreign Policy.

Sharma, Sohan; Tracy, Sue; & Kumar, Surinder (2004, February). The Invasion of Iraq: Dollar vs Euro Re-denominating Iraqi oil in U. S. dollars, instead of the euro. Z magazine.

Are Iraq and Afghanistan the US’s only wars?

I often see the phrase “manage two wars” in popular media. But are there just two wars now, and is it even helpful to think of US wars in the Mideast in this way?

The phrase refers the fact that President Bush, and soon, President Obama, need to manage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while also addressing needs in the economy, health care, environment, education, and other areas. One implication is that two wars is too many, and perhaps, if we could just wrap up the one that hasn’t gone so well (Iraq), we could then focus our energies on the one we should have addressed earlier (Afghanistan).

There are several problems with this way of thinking. The first is that it’s not true. The US battles in the Mideast aren’t restricted to two countries. In the last three months, US-operated pilotless drones have launched more than 20 missile attacks in Pakistani tribal areas, killing hundreds of people, some who are violent themselves, but many who are civilians as well. Americans don’t think of Pakistan as the site of a war, because US ground troops are not based there, but the fact is that our drones kill people and US forces regularly violate Pakistani sovereignty. Hundreds of NATO and US military vehicles destined for neighboring Afghanistan have been attacked and destroyed (in multiple attacks) by militants there. We risk a larger-scale war in, against, or through a bitterly divided country.

So, perhaps we should be saying “manage three wars”? or more if we look at the swath of interconnected conflicts running from Israel and Jordan, often including parts of Syria, Iraq of course, possibly Iran, Afghanistan, all the way to Pakistan?

Wars, or at least the kind of war the US has been engaged in, aren’t waged directly against nations or national armies, which means that they cannot be won in the conventional way either. The issue isn’t to track down and subdue a foe, but to engage with people and ideas. That larger enterprise is the one we’re losing, despite enormous cost in lives and dollars, as evidenced by al-Zaidi’s shoe throwing and the widespread support it received.

The idea of wars as neatly defined by national boundaries implies that we just need to pick our wars more carefully, and then prosecute them cleanly and efficiently. We have a management problem with two; wouldn’t one be better? But the reality is that it’s not better management in the narrow sense that’s needed, but a different way of thinking about how we can act productively in the world, starting with a reassessment of why we’re there in the first place.

Powell asks, “What if he is?”

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama for President was a powerful statement from a much-respected figure. It will certainly help Obama’s campaign. But at least as significant was his challenge of Islamophobia:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as ‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well the correct answer is ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’ But the really right answer is ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer is ‘No. That’s not America.’ Is there something wrong with some 7-year old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.">Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008</a>I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo-essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in you can see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 years old at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he can go serve his country and he gave his life. [Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008]

Powell is not the first to make this point, but it’s difficult to name another such prominent political leader who has done so. Others, including Obama himself, have focused on the fact that some statements about his ethnic or religious background have been false, not on the bigotry revealed by the very question itself. Ignoring the presupposition of those questions shows a lack of understanding and respect for the US Constitution, which should bring shame on Republican and Democratic leaders alike.

See Abed Z. Bhuyan, On Faith: Guest Voices: Powell Rejects Islamophobia

Catch 22 in Iraq

Michael Schwartz has an excellent piece in Mother Jones, Catch 22 in Iraq: Why American Troops Can’t Go Home, about why the Iraq occupation is likely to last a long time. He cites a recent video-conference press briefing for reporters in which Col. Jeffrey Bannister refers to the five-year plan, not just any old plan, but the plan. This implies a generally understood long-term mission, one which is not based on changes on the ground, such as a reduction in sectarian violence.

Moreover, he quotes and links to articles showing that the leading Democratic party contenders are fully with the program, seeing “vital national security interests,” i.e., oil in the region as grounds for continuing military force. The Catch 22 is that violent resistance to the occupation is defined as terrorism; thus, the military presence is needed to combat the very terrorism that it creates.

Schwartz’s article provides further evidence that the issue in Iraq is not promoting democracy, ending sectarian violence, reducing terrorism, promoting peace and justice in the Middle East, or any of a number of other worthwhile goals. It is to secure and maintain ample, low-cost supplies of oil to fuel the global economy, and especially for the Western nations, which use such a disproportionate share of the world’s resources.

All of this makes me think that my 12 steps to respond to 9/11, because “we have to do something!” is still relevant.