Bottom Line: If the United States keeps 55,000 troops in Iraq through 2018, about a third as many troops as are presently deployed, the aggregate cost of the war in Iraq will reach approximately $1.1 trillion. The aggregate cost jumps to $1.7 trillion if one includes aggregate debt service costs for the war on terror.
When asked on January 11 if the U.S. presence in Iraq would continue for another ten years, President Bush responded “It could easily be that. Absolutely.” On January 14, Iraqi defense minister Abdul Qadir said that Iraq would not be able to defend its own borders from external threat until at least 2018. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has gone further, interrupting a question about whether staying in Iraq another 50 years was a good idea by saying “Make it a hundred.”
Last year, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report that estimated the costs to the United States of maintaining a long-term military presence in Iraq. CBO structured its forecast under what it called a “combat” scenario. This scenario assumed that 55,000 U.S. personnel would remain in Iraq and keep the operational tempo and unit rotation pace roughly equivalent to what it is today. It also assumed that reserve-component forces would make up a significant portion of deployed units, as is currently the case in Iraq.
CBO estimated that the combat scenario would initially cost between $4 and $8 billion for start-up procurement expenditures required to station four much-needed sets of equipment in theater for four heavy brigade combat teams. Annual operation costs under the combat scenario would be approximately $25 billion.
It is likely that annual costs for the war in Iraq during FY2009 and FY2010 will remain around $150 billion, roughly equivalent to FY2008 costs. This is a reasonable estimation because the Bush administration controls the FY2009 budget and has not signaled any intention to reduce troop levels much below 130,000, and the new president in 2009 will have to initially fund Bush’s troop levels in the FY2010 budget (plus a drawdown – even if implemented in early 2009 – will be equally, if not more, expensive than maintaining Bush-era troop levels).
Under these assumptions, it will cost $300 billion for Iraq during FY2009-FY2010 and up to $208 billion, using CBO’s combat scenario, during FY2011-FY2018.
Thus, if Congress approves the remainder of the FY2008 Iraq war funding and the United States begins a drawdown to 55,000 personnel in 2009 and keeps them there through 2018, the aggregate cost of the war in Iraq will reach approximately $1.1 trillion since 2003.
This estimate doesn’t even include debt service costs for the war on terror, which tack on another $645 billion according to CBO. Including debt costs pushes the aggregate cost for the Iraq war over $1.7 trillion since 2003.
This should be regarded as a very conservative estimate, as troop levels may not be reduced as low as 55,000, the drawdown to 55,000 may not happen in the single calendar year of 2009, and the cost of the drawdown in 2009 could cost more than $150 billion. Furthermore, other future costs for veterans’ health care, well-documented by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, could add hundreds of billions to the total cost.