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General Motors Corp. Hummer vehicles sit on display at Humme
A row of Hummers for sale in 2009 at a Michigan dealer. Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The True Cost of the Afghanistan War May Surprise You

Jan 01, 2015

Amid the revelry, did you notice that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan ended New Year's Eve at midnight? Now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are officially over—or merely "paused" as many in the Pentagon believe—it's a fair time to check the meter to see how much these two conflicts cost the nation.

First rule: there are as many ways to measure the cost of a war as there are to measure the cost of a car.

Suppose, for example, you were a Pentagon war planner with a hankering for a GM Hummer back in 2009 when both wars were rumbling along. That's the nifty, if not nimble, civilian variation of the U.S. military's High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (Humvee, for short).

A quick check of Edmunds.com's True Cost to Own calculator (after plugging in one of the Pentagon's six Zip Codes) shows you'd pay the dealer $35,752 for the behemoth. But its true cost to own—depreciation, financing, fuel, insurance etc.—would more than double, to $78,616, over five years of ownership.

The analogy's not precise, but it's close enough to show that paying for wars doesn't end when the fighting does. (And not only then: the nation won't be paying for these wars only over the next five years, but for more than a generation). And while you can no longer buy a new Hummer, there's always a new war sitting on out the lot, waiting to be waged. But it's critical to be aware of its total cost.

The Congressional Research Service, for example, just fired up its calculators and concluded that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost U.S. taxpayers $1.6 trillion. That's a fine figure, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go far enough, and anyone who cites it as the conflicts' cost is more Hummer salesman than steward of taxpayer funds.

Congressional Research Service via Federation of American Scientists 

A truer measure of the wars' total costs pegs them at between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. This fuller accounting includes "long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs," Harvard economist Linda Bilmes calculated in 2013.

The Pentagon and its civilian overseers don't like to talk about war costs, either before or after the shooting. That's because a high price tag beforehand acts as an economic brake, making war—assuming that's the goal—less likely. The nation may no longer draft soldiers, but when it wages war it has to draft dollars (borrowed or otherwise). Far better to try to sell a war with a low-cost estimate to mute possible public opposition.

And after the war—especially when victory is MIA—toting up the bottom line is just too depressing.

There are downsides to straying from such dogma. The George W. Bush Administration, for example, forced Lawrence Lindsey to resign as head of its National Economic Council shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, after he said the cost of a war with Iraq might reach $200 billion. A month later, just before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested the war's total cost would be "something under $50 billion." And the U.S., he added, would share that bill with its allies.

The new CRS report says the war in Iraq ended up costing $814.6 billion. Afghanistan has cost $685.6 billion.

Congressional Research Service via Federation of American Scientists 

Bilmes, in her 2013 study, said the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been "the most expensive wars in U.S. history." That, of course, was before the U.S. entered its third Iraq war in August, and before the U.S. decided to keep troops in Afghanistan through 2016.

But just because those U.S. troops in Afghanistan no longer have a combat mission doesn't mean they're a bargain: the CRS report says the cost of keeping a single American soldier there this year is an eye-watering $3.9 million.

See the U.S. Military's Last Days of Combat in Afghanistan

A U.S. soldier waits for a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade to land after an advising mission at the Afghan National Army headquarters for the 203rd Corps in the Paktia province of Afghanistan
VIEW GALLERY | 25 PHOTOS
A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment waits for a CH-47 Chinook helicopter after an advising mission at the Afghan National Army headquarters for the 203rd Corps in the Paktia province of Afghanistan on Dec. 21, 2014.Lucas Jackson—Reuters
A U.S. soldier waits for a CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade to land after an advising mission at the Afghan National Army headquarters for the 203rd Corps in the Paktia province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers from 3rd Cavalry Regiment flag a car to stop to be screened for explosives near forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
A crew member climbs into a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter before it takes off following a mission to take Brigadier General Christopher Bentley to inspect an Afghan National police installation in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan
A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment is watched as he fires a squad automatic weapon during a training mission near forward operating base Gamberi, in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers in Dragon Company of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment watch rounds explode downrange during a mortar exercise near forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment uses the optic on his rifle to observe Afghans in the distance, near forward operating base Gamberi, in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers from 3rd Cavalry Regiment interact with men selected to be biometrically screened near forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
Humvees for the Afghan National Army are lined up waiting for parts to be repaired at the Afghan National Army headquarters for the 203rd Corps in the Paktia province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment take part in a Christmas Eve celebration with soldiers from the Polish army's 21st Mountain Brigade on forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment relaxes in his quarters after taking part in a mortar exercise on forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers play volleyball at forward operating base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment wait in line to get food during a Christmas day lunch at forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment greet their Afghan police counterparts during an advising mission to an Afghan police station constructed by ISAF near Jalalabad
U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment fire a 120mm mortar during an exercise on forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment listen to a translation of an advising meeting at an Afghan National Army base near forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
A U.S. soldier from Grim Company of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment sits in an MRAP vehicle as he prepares for an early morning mission at Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan
A mortar flies out of a tube during a mortar exercise for U.S. soldiers in Dragon Company of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment near forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
Lieutenant McDonald prepares a platoon of U.S. soldiers from Grim Company of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment watch "Die Hard" projected onto an outdoor wall as part of Christmas Day celebrations on forward operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan
REUTERS PICTURE HIGHLIGHT
U.S. soldiers from Grim Company of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment walk down the street near an Afghan police checkpoint during a mission near Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan
A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment walks through an Afghan police station constructed by ISAF near Jalalabad
U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment prepare for a mission at Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment load into a CH-47 Chinook helicopter for an advising mission to an Afghan National Army base at forward operating base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan
A U.S. soldier carries a backpack to a shipping container during preparations for leaving Afghanistan
A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment waits for a CH-47 Chinook helicopter after an advising mission at the Afgha
... VIEW MORE

Lucas Jackson—Reuters
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