The Confused War in Iraq and Syria: Cost and Opinions

US Navy F-18E's after receiving fuel from a KC-135 over northern Iraq after conducting air strikes in Syria Sept. 23.  (USAF photo)

US Navy F-18E’s after receiving fuel from a KC-135 over northern Iraq after conducting air strikes in Syria Sept. 23. (USAF photo)

While the Pentagon refuses to put a price tag on the almost 4,000 air missions US warplanes and drones have flown over Iraq and Syria since early August, analysts have tried to step in and fill the hole.

The latest to enter the fray is Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who says in a paper released today that the cost of US military operations against the IS group in Iraq and Syria through September 24 “is likely between $780 and $930 million.”

That correlates with our own back of the envelope tally, which—using the most conservative estimates possible given what the Pentagon had told us—had about $540 million from June through the end of August and another $230 million for the past month.

The CSBA analysis says that “assuming a moderate level of air operations and 2,000 deployed ground forces, the costs would likely run between $200 and $320 million per month.”

But if there’s an uptick in air ops and as many as 5,000 ground troops are deployed (there will soon be 1,600 US boots on the ground in Iraq) the cost would jump to between $350 and $570 million per month.

“The lower-intensity air operations could cost $2.4 to $3.8 billion per year, the higher-intensity air operations could cost $4.2 to $6.8 billion per year,” Harrison writes. “And deployment of a larger ground contingent [of up to 25,000 troops, as some have called for] could drive annual costs as high as $13 to $22 billion.

But are the American people ready for that kind of commitment?

Civilians and members of the military appear to be on opposite sides of that debate.

In a new NBC News/Annenberg poll, a stunning 72 percent of Americans think that the United States will eventually use ground troops in Iraq, with another 45 percent coming out in in favor of using them if Pentagon leaders say that they think it is the best course of action.

Of those polled, 37 percent are opposed to US ground troops heading back in larger numbers.

On the other hand, a Military Times survey of 2,200 active-duty service members asked: “In your opinion, do you think the U.S. military should send a substantial number of combat troops to Iraq to support the Iraqi security forces?” A full 70 percent answered “No.”

The survey was conducted online this summer, ending in early August just as US bombs began falling on Iraq.

With Congress out of town until after their mid-term elections in November, there’s little hope of the Hill taking the matter up in any real or sustained fashion until they come back, and have to deal with funding the federal government — which runs out of money on Dec. 11.

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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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