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The Global War On Terror

The Deaths, The Costs, The Facts, The Timeline

Who Spent More—Bush, Obama, or Trump?

The “Global War On Terror” is a term used by then-President George W Bush to describe the American-led military campaign launched in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaida. In a speech to Congress on September 20th, 2001, President Bush said: Our war on terror starts with al-Qaida, but that’s not where it ends. It won’t stop until every terrorist group has been located, stopped, and defeated. In a speech in 2013, President Barack Obama rejected the term “War on Terror” saying instead ‘a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists.’ 

According to a Costs of War report from Brown University, 20-years of wars post-9/11 have killed more than 900,000 people and cost the United States an estimated $8 trillion. This report was released prior to the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in Washington DC, New York City, and Pennsylvania. 

In its scope, when referring to its impact on both international relations and expenditure, the War on Terror was comparable to the Cold War. While the intention was to represent a new phase in world political relations, the War on Terror has had notable consequences for human rights, security, cooperation, international law, and governance.

The War on Terror, which includes both the Afghanistan War and the War in Iraq, was one of the most far-reaching and expansive policy initiatives in America’s modern history. As of the financial year 2020 budget, the War on Terror had added $2.4 trillion to US debt.

How Funding is Allocated for the War on Terror

There are two major components to spending on the War on Terror –

No. 1: The first component is spending on overseas contingency operations (OCO). These funds are appropriated by Congress and are not subject to sequestration and other budget limits.

No. 2: The second component is the substantial increases in the Department of Defense’s base budget. Spending for these two wars increases depending on the number of boots on the ground. Congress also increases the domestic force supporting foreign operations, in addition to funding the expansion of new technology, like drones and the F-35 fighter jet.

Both the OCO and the Department of Defense base budget are included in the US military budget. Other departments involved in the War on Terror have separate budgets; these include the National Nuclear Security Administration, The State Department, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

Timeline and Costs of the War on Terror

Courtesy of the National Defense Budget Estimates for the financial year 2020, the following are the War on Terror costs by budgetary years. Note that these amounts only cover budgets for overseas contingency operations and the War on Terror.

FY 2001 – $22.9 billion: The Taliban was attacked by the United States because they were hiding Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida’s leader. In December 2001 the Taliban lost power and Hamid Karzai was appointed interim administration head. At the same time, Bin Laden was pursued by ground troops into the Afghan foothills. On December 16th, 2001, bin Ladin escaped to Pakistan.

FY 2002 – $16.9 billion: Then-President George W Bush received intelligence in October 2002 that Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s leader, was building weapons of mass destruction, so he shifted his focus from bin Laden. The Homeland Security Act was passed by Congress in November, creating a stand-alone, cabinet-level department responsible for coordinating terrorism intelligence. Twenty-two agencies handling domestic security became one.

FY 2003 – $72.5 billion: The doors to Homeland Security were officially opened in March. On March 19th the United States launched the Iraq War, and in April we saw the fall of the Hussein regime. The intention in Afghanistan was to cease US involvement and hand it over to NATO’s peacekeeping mission.

FY 2004 – $90.8 billion: The War in Iraq escalated due to out-of-control insurgents. Photos taken at the Abu Ghraib prison revealed torture, fueling further local resistance. Osama bin Laden threatened another terrorist attack, while Afghanistan created a Constitution. The first free presidential election was held in Afghanistan.

FY 2005 – $75.6 billion: During the first free parliamentary election, Afghans were protected by the US military against Taliban attacks. A new parliament with a new constitution was voted on in Iraq.

FY 2006 – $115.8 billion: Violence increased, and the new Afghanistan government struggled to provide police protection and other basic services. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was executed by US troops.

FY 2007 – $166.3 billion: An additional 20,000 US troops were sent to Iraq to maintain peace until such time as the US-backed Shiite leaders were able to achieve better control.

FY 2008 – $186.9 billion: US troops accidentally killed civilians, resulting in an escalation of violence in Afghanistan. President Bush declared that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the year 2011.

FY 2009 – $145.7 billion: Control of Baghdad’s Green Zone was regained by Iraq forces. In April, shortly after President Obama took office, 17,000 additional troops were sent to Afghanistan, with a further 30,000 promised in December. Obama’s focus was to attack al-Qaida and resurgent Taliban forces on Pakistan’s border. Even amidst fraud accusations, Karzai was re-elected. Obama announced that troops would be drawn down in 2011.

FY 2010- $162.4 billion: Surge forces entered Afghanistan. A wind-down of US troops in Iraq by 2011 was funded by Obama. NATO agreed that all defense would be turned over to Afghan forces by 2014.

FY 2011 – $158.8 billion: On May 2nd, 2011, Special Forces took out Osama bin Laden. President Obama announced that, by the end of the year, 10,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan, with a further 23,000 to be withdrawn by the end of 2012. By December the troops had left Iraq.

FY 2012 – $115.1 billion: President Obama announced that, in the summer, a further 23,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan. It was agreed by both sides that the US should hasten the withdrawal of troops in 2013. American interests were protected by US contractors who stayed in Iraq. 

FY 2013 – $82 billion: US troops moved into a training and support role. Peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban were reignited, resulting in Karzai suspending his US negotiations.

FY 2014 – $84.9 billion: President Obama announced a final withdrawal of US troops, with the aim to have only 9,800 remaining by year’s end. 

FY 2015 – $63 billion:  US troops began training Afghan forces.

FY 2016 – $58.9 billion: US troops returned to Iraq for the purpose of training local soldiers fighting the Islamic State group. The DoD requested funds for equipment and training for Syrian opposition forces and for training efforts in Afghanistan. Included in these funds were responses to terrorist threats and support for NATO.

FY 2017 – $82.5 billion: The DoD requested $58.8 billion for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Operation Freedom Sentinel in Afghanistan, counterterrorism, and increased European support. A further request was received from President Trump that Congress add an additional $5.1 billion for OCO to fight the Islamic State group with $24.9 billion for the DoD.

FY 2018 – $65.1 billion: President Trump’s budget focused on cybersecurity and expanding the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines.

FY 2019 – $68.8 billion: The aim of the budget was to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State group by securing borders, working with partner agencies and forces to stabilize liberated cities, disrupt any ability to attack the United States, and retain territorial control.

FY 2020 – $164.6 billion

The increase in this budget was to enable the military to focus on dealing with what was left of the Islamic State group.

War on Terror Costs Summary Table (in billions)

FY War on Terror / OCO ($bn)
2006 $115.8
2007 $166.3
2008 $186.9
2009 $145.7
2010 $162.4
2011 $158.8
2012 $115.1
2013 $82.0
2014 $84.9
2015 $63.0
2016 $58.9
2017 $82.5
2018 $65.1
2019 $68.8
2020 $164.6

Which President Spent The Most – Bush, Obama, or Trump?

  • President Bush is responsible for the FY 2002–FY 2009 budgets. The total expenditure for those years is $870.5 billion.
  • President Obama dropped the phrase “War on Terror” and campaigned on defense reduction. However, his expenditure on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars still totaled $807.6 billion for the FY 2010–2017, which is just over 7% less than expenditure by President Bush.
  • President Trump’s campaign focused on increasing defense spending, which he achieved by adding $30 billion to Obama’s FY 2017 budget. Over Trump’s four-year term, his total spending on the War on Terror was $366.8 billion; this includes his projected 2021 OCO budget of $68.3 billion.

The War on Terror’s Effect On The US Economy

  • Approximately $2 trillion has been added to US debt since 2001, which is more than 35%. 
  • This has also increased the US budget deficit. 
  • Because defense spending is such a big part of the budget there’s no real way of reducing either without cutting it. 
  • Comparing the US with its NATO allies, the US spends a lot more on defense as a percentage of GDP.
  • The War in Afghanistan has been ongoing and has lasted longer than the Vietnam War.  
  • 4,418 soldiers were killed in the War in Iraq, with a further 31,994 wounded. 
  • American taxpayers have spent in excess of $1.52 trillion on the combined wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

When discussing the real cost of the War on Terror, we can’t only consider what’s been added to the debt. There are also the jobs lost that could have been created with those funds. Some estimates suggest that for every $1 billion spent on defense, 8,555 jobs are created, adding $565 million to the economy. On the other hand, if that same $1 billion was given to you as a tax cut, enough demand could have been stimulated to create 10,779 jobs, putting $505 million as retail spending back into the economy. Similarly, $1 billion in education spending could create 17,687 jobs and added $1.3 billion to the economy.

If we use this model, we can see that the $2 trillion spent on the War on Terror added more than $1.1 trillion to the economy by creating 17 million jobs. Had that money been directed towards education instead, it would have added $2.6 trillion to the economy by creating more than 35 million jobs.


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