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Costs of War

[US Air Force destroys an insurgent prison in Northern Zambraniyah, Iraq, in March 2008. Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr]] [US Air Force destroys an insurgent prison in Northern Zambraniyah, Iraq, in March 2008. Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr]]

[The following project was created by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Shown here is a selection of the project's content. Click here to access the website in full.]

Costs of War

330,000 Killed by Violence, $4 Trillion Spent and Obligated

The wars begun in 2001 have been tremendously painful for millions of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and the United States, and economically costly as well.  Each additional month and year of war will add to that toll.  Moreover, the human costs of these conflicts will reverberate for years to come in each of those four countries.  There is no turning the page on the wars with the end of hostilities, and there is even more need as a result to understand what those wars’ consequences are and will be.

The goal of the Costs of War project has been to outline a broad understanding of the domestic and international costs and consequences of those wars. A team of 30 economists, anthropologists, political scientists, legal experts, and physicians were assembled to do this analysis.  Their research papers are posted and summarized on this website.

We asked:

  • What have been the wars’ costs in human and economic terms?
  • How have these wars changed the social and political landscape of the United States and the countries where the wars have been waged?
  • What have been the public health consequences of the wars?
  • What will be the long term legacy of these conflicts for veterans?
  • What is the long term economic effect of these wars likely to be?
  • Were and are there alternative less costly and more effective ways to prevent further terror attacks?

Some of the project’s findings:

  • Our tally of all of the war’s dead — including soldiers, militants, police, contractors, journalists, humanitarian workers and civilians — shows that at least 330,000 people have died due to direct war violence.
  • Indirect deaths from the wars, including those related to malnutrition, damaged health infrastructure, and environmental degradation, must also be tallied.  In previous wars, these deaths have far outnumbered deaths from combat and that is likely the case here as well.
  • 200,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict, and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as the violence continues. But most observers acknowledge that the number of civilians killed has been undercounted. The true number of civilian dead may be much larger when an adequate assessment is made.
  • While we know how many US soldiers have died in the wars (over 6,600), what is startling is what we don’t know about the levels of injury and illness in those who have returned from the wars.  New disability claims continue to pour into the VA, with over 750,000 disability claims already approved. Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been identified. 
  • Millions of people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.  The number of war refugees and displaced persons --7.4 million-- is equivalent to all of the people of Connecticut and Oregon fleeing their homes.
  • Despite the US military withdrawal, Iraq’s health, infrastructure, and education systems  remain war-devastated.
  • The armed conflict in Pakistan, which the US helps the Pakistani military fight by funding, equipping and training them, is in many ways more intense than in Afghanistan although it receives less coverage in the US news.
  • The United States is at war in Yemen.  During 2012, the Obama administration quickened its pace of drone strikes in the country.  
  • The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.
  • The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades, some costs not peaking until mid-century.
  • The US federal price tag for the Iraq war — including an estimate for veterans' medical and disability costs into the future  —  is about $2.2 trillion dollars.  The cost for both Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan is going to be close to $4 trillion, not including future interest costs on borrowing for the wars. Many of the wars’ costs are invisible to Americans, buried in a variety of budgets, and so have not been counted or assessed.  For example, while most people think the Pentagon war appropriations are equivalent to the wars’ budgetary costs, the true numbers are twice that, and the full economic cost of the wars much larger yet.
  • As with former US wars, the costs of paying for veterans’ care into the future will be a sizable portion of the full costs of the war.
  • The ripple effects on the US economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been underappreciated.
  • While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, both continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom, with warlords continuing to hold power in Afghanistan with US support, and Iraqi communities are more segregated today than before by gender and ethnicity as a result of the war.
  • Women in both countries are essentially closed out of political power and high rates of female unemployment and widowhood have further eroded their condition.
  • During the US troop withdrawal from Iraq, President Obama said that the United States military was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq.”  This was not only an inaccurate account of Iraq’s situation at that time, but the country has since become less secure and politically stable.  Although violence in Iraq has declined since its peak, there has been a steady increase in the number of attacks over the last year. 
  • Serious and compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq.  Some of those alternatives are still available to the US.

There are many costs of these wars that we have not yet been able to quantify and assess.  With our limited resources, we focused on the human toll in the major war zones, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and on US spending, as well as on assessing the claims made for enhanced security, democracy, and women’s condition.  There is still much more to know and understand about how all those affected by the wars have had their health, economies, and communities altered by the decade of war, and what solutions exist for the problems they face as a result of the wars’ destruction. 

Did the Wars Bring Democracy? 

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq both resulted in the eviction of two of the world’s most repressive regimes, that of Saddam Hussein and that of the Taliban.  While bringing democracy to the two countries was not the initial rationale for either war (v. eliminating safe haven to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction), democracy promotion quickly became a stated goal for each. 

Ten years after the US-led invasion, the democracy that has emerged in Iraq is limited in significant ways.  Iraq has adopted what political scientists call a “minimal, procedural” form of democracy that is characterized by multiple elections and civil liberties unavailable under Saddam Hussein.  However, the Iraqi government has become increasingly authoritarian and is characterized by serious human rights violations and repression of journalists. Poverty, insecurity, a deteriorated social welfare system, and corruption effectively block citizens from meaningful democratic participation. 

Iraq has also exhibited a troubling trend towards sectarian conflict and violence, although historically sectarian identity has not been the sole or even the primary foundation for Iraqis’ political identities. Prime Minister al-Maliki has strengthened the role of sectarianism in Iraqi politics by reneging on promises to form a unity government with Allawi’s Iraqiyya bloc, the Kurdish parties and the Shi’a Sadrist movement, and by his Shi’a dominated government’s continued monopolization of power and sidelining of political opponents.

On a widely used evaluation and ranking of the quality of democracy across the world’s states, the “Democracy Index,” Iraq ranks poorly. Of the 165 countries ranked for 2011, Iraq is classified as a “hybrid regime” (between a “flawed democracy” and an “authoritarian regime”) and comes in at a ranking of 112. In 2012, according to Transparency International, on a scale from 0 to 10, Iraq ranks 1.8 – and is among the eight most corrupt nations and territories in the world­ in corruption (defined as “abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). Freedom House simply says: "Iraq is not an electoral democracy. Although it has conducted meaningful elections, political participation and decision-making in the country remain seriously impaired by sectarian and insurgent violence, widespread corruption, and the influence of foreign powers." Freedom House also notes that hundreds of professors were killed and many fled the country during the height of the sectarian fighting, a blow to academic freedom; the judiciary's independence is threatened by political pressure, and sectarian violence continues to threaten religious freedom.

On the Democracy Index, Afghanistan is categorized as an authoritarian regime and ranks at 180 of 182. Afghanistan ranks 1.5 on the Transparency International corruption scale – the worst in South Asia.  Of the 182 countries assessed, the only countries lower ranked than Afghanistan are Somalia and Korea.

Democracy promotion was in trouble in Afghanistan from the beginning, at the meeting which resulted in the December 2001 Bonn Agreement. The resuscitation of well-known warlords who had just been installed in their former fiefdoms for the primary purpose of helping the US prosecute the Global War on Terror was of great concern to Afghans.  Significantly, Bonn did not include groups concerned about the marginalization of women, human rights advocates, nor representatives of the victims of war and abuse.  A significant proportion of the Pashtun community, particularly those associated with the Taliban and rural norms, were not invited to Bonn and were, effectively, relegated to the margins of Afghan politics.

Whereas Afghans do want a say in how they are governed, as indicated in the 70 percent turnout in the 2004 elections, a growing number of citizens are less and less interested in the ineffective democracy that has been on offer.  By August 2009, impunity and corruption were more entrenched than before and Karzai’s western backers were still married to the notion that elections, however unconvincing to Afghans, were needed to sustain domestic support in ISAF troop-contributing countries. Elections, and Karzai’s bid to retain his Presidency, were marred by violence and well-documented, systematic fraud. Turnout was low and polling day was the worst single 24-hour period of recorded violent incidents, including the deaths of 57 Afghans, since the overthrow of the Taliban regime. The second round of parliamentary elections in 2010 fared no better in terms of being credible or acceptable to Afghan voters.  Little effort had been made to correct either the electoral system or the faults that had marred previous rounds of voting.

The widespread violence and corruption in Afghanistan has, ironically, boosted the image of the Taliban, which the Taliban have been able to exploit because of their reputation and approach to criminality. They ended the mayhem associated with their predecessors many of whom are Karzai’s allies who have reverted to their predatory practices.  The study commissioned by US General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 led to the conclusion that “widespread corruption and abuse of power exacerbate the popular crisis of confidence in the government and reinforce a culture of impunity.” By contrast, the Taliban, according to the McChrystal study, have established ombudsmen “to investigate abuse of power in its own cadres and remove those found guilty.”

Many Afghans believe they deserve a “Bonn II” that is free of external interference, embraces the full diversity of Afghan society, and is geared to the identification of genuine power sharing, peace-consolidation, and transparent state-building arrangements. 

[Click here to download the full paper: "Democracy in Post-Invasion Iraq."]  

Education: Universities in Iraq and the U.S.  

Iraq has a history rich in contributions to various academic fields, and its universities were the envy of the Middle East thirty years ago. In the early years of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the education system in Iraq was well resourced, globally connected, secular and open to women.  University education was free and literacy levels rose from 52 percent in 1977 to 80 percent in 1987.  The near collapse of Iraq’s education system was the culmination of a process of decline that gathered pace with the international sanctions regime of the 1990s, culminating in the war of 2003 and its aftermath.  Iraqi universities were stripped clean not only of cultural artifacts like books but also of the basic infrastructural items that enabled them to function at all. Due to international sanctions following the 1991 Gulf War, foreign bureaucrats blocked requests for education materials and resources. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, museums and university libraries were looted and many of their cultural artifacts and documents destroyed, despite earlier pleas from the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to protect cultural heritage sites in Iraq. Jerry Bremer’s DeBaathification process, initiated in 2003, led to the removal of half the intellectual leadership in academia regardless of whether or not they truly believed in the Baath party.

Many professors were kidnapped and assassinated during the violence that followed the US invasion.   While the exact number of academics killed is difficult to determine, estimates by journalists range between 160 and 380 by 2006.  Female students have meanwhile become targets of threats and intimidation by fundamentalist militia groups. In just three decades, Iraq’s universities, reputedly the best in the Islamic world, were effectively destroyed. 

In 2004, John Agresto, the US Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education, assessed the rebuilding needs of devastated Iraqi universities.  He requested from Congress $1.2 billion even though the UN and World Bank had estimated it would take almost $2 billion to “ensure minimal quality standards of teaching and learning.” Nonetheless, Agresto received  $8 million, less than 1 percent of what he had asked for.

Far from the battlefield, American universities have paid a less visible price during the post-9/11 wars. The university system places greater emphasis on military research than it did prior to 9/11 and, as a result, diverts students from careers and researchers from other pressing projects they might pursue. Instead of tackling considerable public health problems such as diabetes and heart disease that kill large numbers of Americans, resources have been skewed towards a preoccupation with bioterrorism (which has killed five Americans since 9/11).

The war in Iraq harmed the Iraqi and American systems in different ways, resulting in the complete degradation of the Iraqi education system and a reallocation of research labor away from important health and other social problems in the United States.

[Click here to download the full paper: "The University at War."]

Environmental Costs

The impact of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan can be seen not only in the social, economic and political situations of these areas but also in the environments in which these wars have been waged. The long years of war have resulted in a radical destruction of forest cover and an increase in carbon emissions. In addition, the water supply has been contaminated by oil from military vehicles and depleted uranium from ammunition. Along with the degradation of the natural resources in these countries, the animal and bird populations have also been adversely affected. In recent years, Iraqi medical doctors and health researchers have called for more research on war-related environmental pollution as a potential contributor to the country’s poor health conditions and high rates of infections and diseases.

Water & Soil Pollution: During the 1991 aerial campaign over Iraq, the US utilized approximately 340 tons of missiles containing depleted uranium (DU). Water and soil may be contaminated by the chemical residue of these weapons, as well as benzene and trichloroethylene from air base operations. Perchlorate, a toxic ingredient in rocket propellant, is one of a number of contaminants commonly found in groundwater around munitions storage sites around the world.

The health impact of war-related environmental exposure remains controversial. Lack of security as well as poor reporting in Iraqi hospitals have complicated research. Yet, recent studies have revealed troubling trends. A household survey in Fallujah, Iraq in early 2010 obtained responses to a questionnaire on cancer, birth defects, and infant mortality.  Significantly higher rates of cancer in 2005-2009 compared to rates in Egypt and Jordan were found.  The infant mortality rate in Fallujah was 80 deaths per 1000 live births, significantly higher than rates of 20 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and 10 in Kuwait.  The ratio of male births to female births in the 0-4 age cohort was 860 to 1000 compared to the expected 1050 per 1000. 

Toxic Dust: Heavy military vehicles have also disturbed the earth, particularly in Iraq and Kuwait. Combined with drought as a result of deforestation and global climate change, dust has become a major problem exacerbated by the major new movements of military vehicles across the landscape. The U.S. military has focused on the health effects of dust for military personnel serving in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.  Iraq service members’ exposures to inhaled toxins have correlated with respiratory disorders that often prevent them from continuing to serve and performing everyday activities such as exercise.  U.S. Geologic Survey microbiologists have found heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cobalt, barium, and aluminum, which can cause respiratory distress, and other health problems. Since 2001, there has been a 251 percent rise in the rate of neurological disorders, a 47 percent increase in the rate of respiratory problems, and a 34 percent rise in rates of cardio-vascular disease in military service members that is likely related to this problem.

Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution from Military Vehicles:  Even setting aside the accelerated operational tempo of wartime, the Department of Defense has been the country’s single largest consumer of fuel, using about 4.6 billion gallons of fuel each year. Military vehicles consume petroleum-based fuels at an extremely high rate: an M-1 Abrams tank can get just over a half mile on a gallon of fuel per mile or use about 300 gallons during eight hours of operation. Bradley Fighting Vehicles consume about 1 gallon per mile driven. 

War accelerates fuel use.  By one estimate, the U.S. military used 1.2 million barrels of oil in Iraq in just one month of 2008. This high rate of fuel use over non-wartime conditions has to do in part with the fact that fuel must be delivered to vehicles in the field by other vehicles, using fuel.  One military estimate in 2003 was that two-thirds of the Army’s fuel consumption occurred in vehicles that were delivering fuel to the battlefield. The military vehicles used in both Iraq and Afghanistan produced many hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide in addition to CO2. In addition, the allied bombing campaign of a variety of toxics-releasing sites such as ammunition depots, and the intentional setting of oil fires by Saddam Hussein during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to air, soil, and water pollution.

War-Accelerated Destruction and Degradation of Forests and Wetlands: The wars have also damaged forests, wetlands and marshlands in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.  Radical deforestation has accompanied this and the previous wars in Afghanistan.  Total forest area decreased 38 percent in Afghanistan from 1990 to 2007. This is a result of illegal logging, which is associated with the rising power of the warlords, who have enjoyed U.S. support.  In addition, deforestation has occurred in each of these countries as refugees seek out fuel and building materials.  Drought, desertification, and species loss that accompany habitat loss have been the result.  Moreover, as the wars have led to environmental destruction, the degraded environment itself contributes in turn to further conflict.

War-Accelerated Wildlife Destruction: Bombing in Afghanistan and deforestation have threatened an important migratory thoroughfare for birds leading through this area. The number of birds now flying this route has dropped by 85 percent. U.S. bases became a lucrative market for the skins of the endangered Snow Leopard, and impoverished and refugee Afghans have been more willing to break the ban on hunting them, in place since 2002. Foreign aid workers who arrived in the city in large numbers following the collapse of the Taliban regime have also purchased the skins.  Their remaining numbers in Afghanistan were estimated at between 100 and 200 in 2008.

[Click here to download the full report: "Health and Healthcare Decline in Iraq: The Example of Cancer & Oncology."] 

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