Iraq: Five years later

By PETER KADZIS  |  March 12, 2008

You hold that this war is the second most expensive war in our nation’s history, that only World War II was more expensive. How can this be so? How can we be spending more in Iraq, where we have about 160,000 troops, than we did in Korea, with 1.5 million soldiers, or Vietnam, with 550,000?
The main reason is we are spending more per soldier by an order of magnitude. Previous wars cost about $50,000 per troop. We’re spending $400,000 per troop. Now you can ask, why is that? Part of it has to do with the way we use expensive private contractors to do what the military used to do. Expensive contractors or single-source bidding is an invitation to high prices. You don’t have competitive forces at play. We have even reduced the number of financial auditors.

Then there is the conduct of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. For instance, at the beginning of the war we deferred maintenance. We used up our equipment faster than we repaired it. You can do that for a while. And Washington may have thought they could get away with it because they thought the war would be short. Washington figured it could bury these costs into the overall defense budget so it wouldn’t go under the Iraq War bill. But five years later, five years after “Mission Accomplished,” that strategy of deferral backfires.

Everybody knows that the reason why you want to keep maintenance up to date is that, if you postpone maintenance, the bills get larger. And that is precisely what happened. At the beginning of the war we were spending about $4 billion a month. Now we’re spending $12 billion in Iraq alone — $16 billion with Afghanistan. The cost of everything in the war zones is skyrocketing.

How do we leave Iraq now?
It’s very clear the Bush administration didn’t think very much about an exit strategy. It has punted the ball, left the problem with the next president.

Most people recognize that we will have to exit at some point. We may not have a choice. Iraq may tell us to go. It’s a lot better for us to go before we are told to go. I don’t think we want to be in the business of replacing governments that tell us to go. We’ve already been in one regime change.

To stay in Iraq for four more years will cost $1.2 trillion. That’s $12 billion a month in upfront costs, plus that amount again in veteran’s benefits and health-care costs. So the total cost per month is $25 billion. The total annual cost is $300 billion. These numbers don’t take into account the fact that costs are rising every month, so these numbers are conservative.

Okay, that’s a lot of money. When we leave, there may be chaos or things may get better. Most Iraqis think when we leave things will get better, but no one can know for sure. But that’s not the issue. The issue is, if we leave now versus leaving four years from now, will things be that much better four years from now? Or that much less bad, that it’s worth spending $1.2 trillion?

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