By official count, the war in Iraq has cost over $800 billion in special war appropriations through 2011. The true costs, however, are as much as three to four times that number, according to a team of economists organized at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. This is because the official war accounting does not include interest payments to date on the money borrowed to pay for the war. Nor does it include medical and disability payments for wounded veterans already paid and coming due for decades into the future. It also fails to include an additional roughly one trillion dollars that the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security received over and above their usual base budgets during that nine year period, accretions that can be attributed to the wars and war climate in Congress.
Put all that together, combine it with the cost of the much less expensive Afghan war, and the total federal outlay is $3.6 trillion. And this is before we face future interest payments, which team economist Ryan Edwards has estimated could well reach $1 trillion by 2020.
But the problem going forward is not just clawing back the Pentagon’s inflated base budget or paying off debts to U.S. creditors, wounded veterans, or the people of Iraq. It is the expense and risk of the ongoing U.S. operations in Iraq, where 16,000 civilians will be stationed, primarily as State Department employees or contractors from 2012 forward. Crucially, the mission in Iraq has come to change — and indeed militarize – the way in which the State Department operates.
First the expense. The State Department budget for FY2012 in Iraq is $6.2 billion. While that number may not shock in the context of the torrent of dollars that flowed during the war itself, it is nonetheless a major outlay, significantly larger than this year’s budget for, to take an important example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, the Department of Defense will also continue to spend money to redeploy thousands of troops from Iraq to U.S. military bases in Kuwait and elsewhere nearby.
Then the risk. Violence continues as daily fare in Iraq, including continued resistance to U.S. presence. To deal with this fact, fully one third of the 16,000 civilians to be posted in Iraq will wield guns: a phalanx of security contractors — 5,500 strong — will operate in the country. This is definitely not State Department business as usual, even in the more dangerous areas in which it operates. The Iraq total is three times the number of people the State Department has employed to protect all of its other diplomatic missions in the world combined.
Breaking it down, the State Department’s 5,500 security personnel join 4,500 "general life support" contractors who will be working to provide food, health care, and aviation services to those employed in Iraq, and approximately 6,000 US federal employees from State and other agencies. After Jan. 1, there will also be 157 U.S. military personnel and about 700 civilian contractors in Iraq who will train local forces in how to use the more than $8 billion in military equipment U.S. military corporations have sold to Iraq.
The security contractors will be the employees of several companies that received large multi-year contracts: Triple Canopy received $1.5 billion to protect State Department officials, SOC Incorporated will guard the gigantic U.S. embassy in Baghdad for almost a billion, and Global Strategies Group will take home $410 million to repel attack on the U.S. consulate in Basra and its civilian personnel. Other contractors will guard two additional U.S. consulates elsewhere in the country. These represent half the total State Department budget. Sums allocated for assistance in reconstruction, refugee assistance, education, and other humanitarian aid pale in comparison.
The big question is how this State Department operation will avoid being simply "armed occupation lite." The contractors will have a range of military-style missions, including detecting and warning against incoming fire and rescuing diplomatic personnel who might come under attack. How will the contractors react when they come under attack or feel threatened?
The terms of reference and rules of engagement for these contractors have been hidden from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the designated auditor for these activities, as Spencer Ackerman of Wired reported this summer. Future contractor abuses and Iraqi civilian deaths, as in the 2007 massacre of 17 people in Nisour Square by Blackwater contractors, should also not take the U.S. public by surprise. The horrendous battles of Fallujah were in part sparked by contractor actions, making it imperative to ask whether these security contractors will pull the U.S. back into the conflict.
On the other hand, contract employees themselves, whether armed or unarmed, will face a risk that uniformed and civilian government employees in Iraq have not, namely second-class citizenship. During the many years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and up through today, contractor deaths have been underreported and their families often not compensated for their loss. Health care benefits for injured contractors have also often been substandard or non-existent, with valid claims often denied by the insurance companies the contracting corporation is required to have cover its employees on federal contract.
Moreover, while the lack of immunity was a deal-breaker in discussions about keeping military personnel in Iraq, and while the U.S. claims immunity for military trainers by considering them embassy personnel, the United States has allowed civilian contractors to come under Iraqi law.
We can also ask about the intangible costs of the next year of the U.S. mission in Iraq. They include the militarization of the State Department (thereby diminishing the effectiveness of other elements of U.S. diplomacy in Iraq and elsewhere), the continued waging of proxy war through the expensive and potentially counterproductive arming and training of the Iraqi military and police, and the likely continuation of the fraud, waste, and abuse that the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated had "disappeared" as much as $60 billion so far.
The final risk is existential. As the State Department runs primarily a security operation and the Department of Defense withdraws some of its forces and resources just over the border to Kuwait, the United States government remains committed to a view of U.S. power which is centered in armed force, projected everywhere, and chimerically imagines that it can thereby control world events.
Catherine Lutz is the Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Family Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Brown University. She is co-director of the Costs of War research project based at the Watson Institute for International Studies.