The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost U.S. taxpayers almost $5 trillion, according to a Brown University report released 15 years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The $4.79 trillion figure is “so large as to be almost incomprehensible,” study author Neta Crawford wrote. For context, the U.S. gross domestic product was an estimated $17.9 trillion in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund.
That almost $5 trillion figure also outpaces the GDP of Japan, the world's third-largest economy. But even that doesn't quantify the full cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Crawford noted.
“A full accounting of any war’s burdens cannot be places in columns on a ledger,” she wrote. “From the civilians harmed or displaced by violence, to the soldiers killed and wounded, to the children who play years later on roads and fields sown with improvised explosive devices and cluster bombs, no set of numbers can convey the human toll of the wars.”
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Researchers at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs also say the total cost is larger than estimates by the federal government, and includes funds allocated to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Homeland Security spending associated with both ongoing wars, and money allocated by the Department of State to support the military mission in those countries, including cash reserved for helping civilians in war-torn areas.
The U.S. Department of Defense is also famously inefficient, with the latest example of out-of-control military spending coming via a June report by the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General. The report says the U.S. Army fabricated accounting details for $6.5 trillion in defense spending, according to CNN.
A full audit of the Pentagon by the Government Accountability Office is slated for 2017, the network reported.
“Where is the money going? Nobody knows,” Franklin Spinney, a retired military analyst, told Reuters in August.
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That doesn't mean $6.5 trillion is missing -- it means the Army "lacked receipts and invoices to support those numbers or simply made them up," the Reuters report said. The cooked books are the result of poor accounting practices and missing financial records, with the Inspector General warning that mistakes in the military branch's books are "material and pervasive.”
Both Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, have called for increased defense spending, Reuters noted.
Although the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has been significantly scaled down, the military maintains a troop presence and staffed bases in both countries. Around 5,000 troops remain in Iraq, the Pentagon told Time magazine, while 9,800 U.S. service members remained in Afghanistan as of early 2016, reports The Washington Post.
The cost of maintaining a military presence in both countries -- in addition to operations such as the airstrikes in Syria -- means U.S. taxpayers still shoulder an enormous burden, according to Crawford. The drain on taxpayers is compounded by the fact that the U.S. government is borrowing money to continue funding those efforts.
“Even if the U.S. stopped spending on war at the end of this fiscal year," she wrote, "interest costs alone on borrowing to pay for the wars will continue to grow apace."