Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

US is Still Living With Consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

| Mar. 20, 2023

This week marks the 20th anniversary of “shock and awe” — the military blitz that signaled the start of the United States’ ill-fated invasion of Iraq. It is not a date that is being commemorated fondly by anyone in Congress or the military. But before the nation consigns this misguided and unnecessary war to the history books, it’s worth reminding ourselves that many of its consequences are still with us today.

First, the cost of the war contributed substantially to the rapid rise in national debt — a topic that is again fashionable in Washington. The United States spent at least $5 trillion on Iraq and the protracted conflict in Afghanistan — the most expensive wars in US history. Unlike previous wars, which were funded by a combination of tax increases and cuts to nonwar spending, these wars were paid for entirely with borrowed money — a first in US military history — and the government still owes $2 trillion more in future veterans benefits. So war costs were a major contributor to our current national debt hangover. At today’s interest rates of around 5 percent, the war debt absorbs some $250 billion a year in servicing costs, or around 1 percent of gross domestic product. Absent this burden, it would be significantly easier for Congress to grapple with the chronic imbalance in the federal budget.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not only very costly but also hugely wasteful. Successive inspector generals published scathing reports criticizing the Pentagon’s inability to track billions in war and reconstruction costs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressional oversight was also missing in action. War budgets were approved using an emergency funding mechanism, which circumvented the normal congressional approval process and skirted budgetary scrutiny. Over time, the funding mechanism developed into a parallel budget that financed a bonanza in defense spending, much of it only tangentially related to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Swollen military spending (what former secretary of defense Robert Gates termed “the culture of endless money”) greatly benefited US defense contractors. Our military relied to an unprecedented degree on private contractors in virtually all areas of war operations. Contractors supplied trucks, planes, fuel, helicopters, ships, drones, night-vision goggles, engines, sandbags, communications equipment, weapons, and munitions as well as support services from catering and construction to IT and logistics. The number of contractors on the ground outnumbered US troops in most years of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bilmes, Linda and Joseph E. Stiglitz.“US is Still Living With Consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.” The Boston Globe, March 20, 2023.

The Authors