A trove of military documents about the Afghanistan war made public by WikiLeaks and turned into journalism by The Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel will surely bring renewed attention to that war. (A side debate: these are the Pentagon Papers of our time; no, they’re not.) We’ll be hearing a lot about the various costs of this war and the Iraq war — the financial, political, and human costs, at the very least.
As of this writing, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are in their eighth and tenth years, having accrued nearly a trillion dollars in direct military costs. I review the history of cost forecasts for these ongoing engagements, highlighting the differences across them in scope and accuracy, assessing the methods and practice of cost forecasting, and exploring the implications of the war costs themselves. Besides the unanticipated length and breadth of the military conflicts themselves, a related and equally important component of costs is the life cycle of costs associated with caring for veterans. The forecasts we have of such costs imply high levels of public spending per veteran and very high levels of costs associated with pain and suffering per veteran, as high as 10 to 25 percent of lifetime wealth. I also discuss the methods and motivations associated with war cost forecasts by comparing them with other types of aggregate forecasts, which are prone to similar types of errors. The history of war cost forecasts suggests that increasing their frequency and transparency may improve their usefulness in guiding policy.