The U.S. military is about to surpass 20 years since invading Iraq, a war that has cost more than 550,000 lives, and nearly $1.8 trillion, according to a report released Wednesday.
The Costs of War project predicted the dollar amount will swell to $2.89 trillion by 2050, when factoring in the cost of caring for veterans of the Iraq war, and subsequent operations in Iraq and Syria to counter ISIS.
“The Bush administration was convinced and assured the American people and the world that the war would have few casualties of all kinds — civilian and military — and would lead to quick victory,” instead of stretching for years, said Neta C. Crawford, the project’s co-director, in a statement on the ongoing research effort from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.
U.S forces invaded in 2001, toppling Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein but also unleashing an Sunni insurgency that spawned the so-called Islamic State. President Barack Obama ordered their full withdrawal in late 2011, only to send a limited force back in 2014 to battle ISIS at the request of the Iraqi government.
The dollar amount from Costs of War includes $862 billion in overseas contingency funds ― budgeted by Congress to fund the Global War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington ― as well as $406 billion added to the Pentagon’s base budget between 2003 and 2023. The researchers added another $62 billion from the State Department, interest on the overseas contingency spending, plus $233 billion for troops’ medical and disability care and another $1.1 trillion for future veterans’ care through 2050.
Much of the health care costs are the result of advances in battlefield medicine that saw a 45% increase in survival, the report found, but also totaled more than 32,000 troops injured.
The Pentagon declined to comment Friday on the report’s findings. During a recent visit to Iraq, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. is committed to remaining in the country to train its military and support efforts to eradicate ISIS.
“U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” he said. “These forces are operating in a non-combat advise, assist and enable role to support the Iraqi-led fight against terrorism.”
While offensive combat operations have ceased in Iraq, the U.S. military still has roughly 2,500 troops there in a train-advise-assist mission with the Iraqi military. In Syria, about 900 troops are continuing the counter-ISIS mission.
Retired Army colonel and historian Joel Rayburn, who co-edited a Two-volume U.S. Army history of the Iraq war, took issue with the report including that ongoing ISIS fight with the 2003 to 2011 conflict.
“Those are very different conflicts over different periods of time,” said Rayburn, a former Trump official who now directs the American Center for Levant studies. “There were interruptions in the U.S. military involvement and vastly different missions.”
He also took issue with the U.S. bearing the blame for deaths from the ISIS fight, which overlapped with the Syrian civil war, and for the post-invasion conflict that broke out between Iraq’s Sunni Muslims and the Shi’ite population that had endured violent oppression under Saddam.
“They want to ascribe the human toll throughout the region just to the United States involvement,” he said of the study authors.
The report lists among those killed: 4,600 troops and 15 Defense Department civilians, 3,650 contractors, 282 members of the media and 64 non-governmental organization humanitarian workers. In Syria, another 19 contractors, 75 media members and 227 NGO workers have died.
The report then factors in national military and police, other allied troops, civilians and opposition fighters, using admittedly broad estimates, for an overall total of between 550,000 and 580,000 deaths.
“The difficulty in determining the total number of civilian deaths is related to whether those deaths have been documented, and sometimes whether a person is classed as a civilian/non-combatant, or if their status is uncertain,” according to the report.
Further, the number of non-international combatants killed on all sides is uncertain: adversaries have incentives to deflate their own casualties and inflate the other sides’ casualties.”
Other researchers have attempted to compile the human costs of the war over the past two decades, though estimates always come with the caveat that they’re based on surveys or extrapolations of violence as a result of Iraq’s destabilization.
PLOS Medicine estimated in 2013, based on surveys of 2,000 Iraqi households, that the U.S. operation from 2004 to 2011 resulted in more than 400,000 excess deaths. IraqBodyCount.org estimates between 180,000 and 210,000 civilian deaths since 2003, based on public record keeping.
The study authors explain the bipartisan congressional support for funding the lengthy conflict on a “‘rally around the flag’ effect — where members of Congress during the Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden administrations wanted to be seen to be supporting U.S. troops,” according to the paper.
Examples include President Barack Obama’s $664 billion Pentagon budget request for 2010, which Congress bumped up to $691 billion. Post-ISIS, a 2018 Trump administration budget request got $61 billion extra in the final appropriations law; and $22.5 billion and $45 billion extra in the 2021 and 2022 requests by the Biden administration.
The Pentagon’s budget has continued to swell even as spending on fighting wars has decreased, the report found, thanks to outsourcing services to private contractors, modernizing military equipment, growing personnel costs through pay raises and allowances, and the cost of health care for troops and veterans.
As the March 19 Operation Iraqi Freedom anniversary approaches, lawmakers are pushing a vote to repeal the authorization of military force that facilitated the subsequent war in Iraq, absent a formal declaration of war.
The Senate on Thursday voted 67-27 to repeal both the 2002 and 1991 authorizations, which go all the way back to Operation Desert Storm. Both President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have signaled support for the vote.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.