The War on Terror’s Total Cost: $5,900,000,000,000

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The United States has racked up an exorbitant price tag to fight the war on terror, at great humanitarian cost. With the number of jihadist fighters overseas on the rise and a plurality of Americans simultaneously feeling less safe, when – if ever – can it be dubbed a mission accomplished?  

Taken altogether, research conducted by Brown University, the Charles Koch Institute - in collaboration with RealClearDefense, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and more, would give any American pause over their country’s spiraling counterterrorism strategy.

Defense Priorities fellow Daniel R. DePetris weaves together the key findings of the aforementioned projects to deliver a healthy, albeit hard-to-swallow, dose of reality for those who are, at the minimum, perplexed and at the maximum, angered, by the number of zeroes behind over 17 years of fighting terror. 

Why so many zeroes?

According to Brown University’s 2018 Costs of War Project, the U.S. has “appropriated and is obligated to spend an estimated $5.9 trillion on the war on terror” through FY2019.

The Ivy League study is quick to point out that, yes, this number varies drastically from Pentagon estimates of the post 9/11 wars due to its inclusion of not just spending in designated war zones, but also war-related spending across the interagency community.

As shown in the featured charticle below, the $5.9 billion includes over $2 trillion of DOD and State Department funds for overseas contingency operations (OCO), $924 billion of Department of Homeland Security funds for prevention and response to terrorism, and $353 billion in medical and disability care for 9/11 veterans.

Especially when it comes to veterans care, spending won’t be slowing down any time soon, unless deployments are halted completely. Overseas contingency operations alone are projected to require $80 billion through FY2023, in addition to the over $2 trillion aforementioned.

The the war on terror is taking a toll on our country’s debt and soldiers - so much so that it's difficult to keep track of just how and where American money is being expended for security. 

“We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world”

Words that a senior U.S. Senator should never have to ask, but did in 2017 after four special forces troops were killed in Niger – where few claimed to know we had troops.

Brown University’ Costs of War Project teamed up with Smithsonian magazine to produce the most comprehensive, civilian-produced characterization of U.S. overseas actions in the last two years of the the war on terror. 

This infographic reveals an active American presence, from U.S. base placement to active combat on ground and air, in 80 nations across six continents, so we are currently operating in 40% of the world – and that’s only according to open source information.

We’re spread across nearly half the world, to counter terrorism everywhere we can. Is the cost effectiveness paying off? Keep reading to do a quick cost-benefit analysis yourself

More money, more [terrorist] problems?

According to CSIS’ Transnational Threats Project, the number of Salafi-jihadist fighters increased by 270% between 2001 and 2018, with as many as 280,000 fighters in 2018 – the highest in 40 years. The number of jihadist groups has increased by 180% since 2001, to sixty-seven by 2018. 

Ironically, the increase in fighters is most consolidated in the countries most touched by the U.S. – Iraq and Afghanistan. 

To recap this comprehensive analysis, $5.9 billion has been spent putting us in 40% of the world, only to yield 270% more terrorists, 180% more terrorists groups, and a pervasive insecure American sentiment. Looking at the progression of these numbers, perhaps Americans' gut feeling is in the right while the United States' counterterrorism strategy since 2001 is in the wrong.

If not for enhancing the safety and security of America, then what are we fighting for? 

Read the full report here.


Feature Charticle
US Costs of War: $5.9 Trillion of Current Dollars Appropriated and Spent through FY2019
Brown University Costs of War Project, 2018