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Costing 'success' in Afghanistan and Iraq

You might think that the cost of America's foreign wars has driven the country into bankruptcy. You'd be wrong. It didn't in the Second World War (when U.S. military spending peaked in 1944 at 37.8 per cent of GDP). It didn't in the Vietnam War (when military spending peaked in 1968 at 9.4 per cent of GDP). It didn't in the Cold War (when military spending peaked in 1988 at 6.1 per cent of GDP). And it hasn't in Iraq and Afghanistan (when military spending peaked last year at 4.7 per cent of GDP).

It's not so much that the U.S. has spent too much on war. It's that it has spent too much on peace - most of it with borrowed money. War expenses aside, the country has increased its debt in the past two years by more than $4-trillion (from $10-trillion to $14-trillion).

But the issue isn't the financial cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars. It's the human cost - which, however appalling, can be properly assessed only with the passage of time. On the ground, though, American (and Canadian) soldiers themselves never ceased to believe, for the most part, that they were engaged in just wars. In large numbers, they volunteered for multiple tours of duty.

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Further, these wars were successfully waged. In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is finished. Osama bin Laden is dead. (The Times of London says he spent his final days grubbing for money to pay the rent on his safe house in Pakistan.) The Taliban's role has been diminished in much of the country. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein remains dead, and a putative democracy operates, however tentatively, in his absence.

Were the U.S. and its allies victorious in Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course not. Were they successful? Absolutely. President Barack Obama was right (in a news conference last week) to proclaim an American "success" rather than an American "victory" in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was right (in his comments to Canadian soldiers in Kandahar in May) to define the Canadian success: Afghanistan, he said, "is no longer a source of global terrorism."

The fact is this: In the Afghan war, the Taliban win only when they return to power; the U.S. and its allies win as long as they stop this from happening. From this perspective, the U.S. can ostensibly lose the war and still win it. U.S. strategic thinker George Friedman has said that America's essential military goal, in its modern wars, has been defensive - not necessarily to vanquish its enemies but to stop them, or delay them, from winning. Because of this, American victories can look a lot like defeats.

Whatever the historic judgment, however, financial costs haven't been a significant factor. U.S. military spending - at 4.7 per cent of GDP last year - includes all of the ordinary peacetime costs of maintaining armies, navies and air forces. In other words, the entire U.S. military establishment.

What part of these costs can be attributed to the Iraq and Afghan wars? In a comprehensive report published in March, the U.S. Congressional Research Service calculated that the actual cost of the country's foreign wars since 2001 comes to $1.28-trillion - or, on average, $128-billion a year. Last year's military spending, everything included, reached $664-billion. In 2010, the Iraq and Afghan wars accounted for a fifth of military spending, or 0.94 per cent of GDP.

Canada, for its part, spent much less in relative terms - as you would expect given that it fought in a single war. Total expenditure estimates range from $18-billion (as projected through 2011 by the Parliamentary Budget Office) to $28-billion (as calculated by academics through 2040). Let's arbitrarily assume $22-billion. In this case, Canada spent $3.1-billion a year since 2005 - a mere 0.2 per cent of GDP. But then Canada spent only 1.4 per cent of GDP on its military responsibilities last year - half its military spending in the 1960s.

What's a nascent democracy in Iraq worth? What's an al-Qaeda-free (and decidedly more peaceful) Afghanistan worth? Are they worth 0.9 per cent of American GDP? Yes. And one can reasonably affirm: No one died in vain.

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About the Author
Neil Reynolds

Neil Reynolds is an Ottawa writer whose columns on national economic issues appear in Wednesday's and Friday's Globe and Mail. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun and the Ottawa Citizen. More

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