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Linda J. Bilmes

What have we learned from Iraq?

As Iraq war winds down, the conflict offers expensive lessons

THIS MONTH, after nearly nine years, the American war in Iraq is finally drawing to a close. At its peak, 170,000 Americans were stationed in more than 500 military bases across the country. In total, more than 2 million US troops have served in Iraq; now we are down to the last 18,000, with hundreds leaving every day.

With the end of the war looming, we can say for certain that the total cost will be at least $4 trillion. This figure could climb much higher, depending on the number of veterans who require long-term care, the cost of replacing equipment, and the full social and economic impact of the war. The human toll has been equally high: 4,486 Americans have been killed in Iraq, 32,000 wounded in action, and tens of thousands seriously injured. More than one-third of recent veterans report having a service-connected disability.

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Despite a concerted effort to train Iraqi forces and help reconstruct the country, Iraq remains insecure and politically unstable, with constant threats from Shi’ite militias loyal to Iran, as well as Sunni militants such as Al Qaeda. Millions of Iraqis are still displaced from their homes, either living in exile outside the country or unable to return to their old neighborhoods after the sectarian violence of 2005 to 2007. Meanwhile, the balance of power in the region, which President Bush hoped to tip in favor of the West, is precarious and depends on many factors outside US control. Amid this gloomy picture it is timely to ask what lessons the war should hold for America.

■ The costs of war are not only high, but unpredictable. The Iraq war cost far more than originally estimated and it set off a chain of events that had far-reaching economic consequences. The invasion contributed to a sharp rise in oil prices, which increased from $25 a barrel in 2003 to a peak of $140 in 2008. The decision to finance the war entirely through borrowing added $2 trillion to the US national debt and significantly constrained our flexibility to respond to the nation’s financial crisis, which is by no means over.

■ Fighting multiple wars simultaneously makes it hard to succeed. The time and attention that military commanders were obliged to devote to Iraq distracted them from Afghanistan. Consequently, what started out in 2001 as a quick mission to topple the Taliban and eradicate Al Qaeda bases from Afghanistan turned into a decade-long war that seems destined to produce few tangible benefits for the United States. We will never know for sure what might have happened in Afghanistan had we not invaded Iraq, but it is clear that we seriously underestimated the difficulty - both militarily and politically - of waging two wars.

■ We urgently need a system to track military and war spending. The Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, Pentagon inspectors general, and others have repeatedly complained that we lack the basic accounting systems necessary to understand where money is spent. Since 2001, the regular Pentagon budget has increased by some $800 billion in addition to war spending. Yet the Air Force and Navy have smaller and older fleets than before, while the Army and Marines are roughly the same size. Where has all the money gone? The Pentagon’s accounting systems are so flawed that there is no way even to perform an audit. The result is a legacy of rampant waste and cost overruns, war profiteering, co-mingling of war and non-war related funds, and an inability to tally the true cost of war.

■ The system for transitioning our troops back into civilian society is badly in need of an overhaul. The Department of Veterans Affairs has already treated more than 600,000 men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom qualify for disability compensation for the rest of their lives. Despite hiring thousands of additional claims specialists, the VA’s backlog of disability claims continues to grow. The cumbersome, overly complicated system for processing claims forces hundreds of thousands of returning service members into a protracted, stressful battle with the bureaucracy. Little wonder that veterans - especially women veterans - suffer from high levels of homelessness, suicide, divorce, depression, substance abuse, and unemployment.

■ There is no provision to fund the ongoing costs of caring for Iraq war veterans. The long-term cost of providing health care and disability benefits to veterans will amount to some $1 trillion in today’s dollars. Despite ritual pronouncements in Washington that veterans are a top priority, Congress has not set aside funding for this purpose. As pressure builds on the US budget, we need to ensure that future Americans do not turn their backs on this commitment. Congress should establish a Veterans Trust Fund that explicitly sets aside money for veterans care at the same time that war funding is appropriated.

Linda J. Bilmes is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and coauthor of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.’’
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