Britain's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost taxpayers over $50 billion
Britain has been criticized for its costly role in Iraq and Afghanistan during times of economic hardship (File/AFP)
The cost of Britain’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has reached almost £30bn ($50 billion) – or £1,000 for every taxpayer in the country, a respected defence think-tank claims.
As British forces prepare to pull out of Afghanistan, the Royal United Services Institute has calculated that the UK’s contribution to the US-led campaign in the country between 2006 and 2013 was £19.59bn. The cost of operations in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 was £9.56bn, the organisation added. The total bill does not include this year’s cost of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The estimate is contained in a new book analysing the success and failure of Britain’s military operations since the end of the Cold War.
It concludes that while earlier interventions in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq in 1991 could be broadly described as successful, the case for later interventions is much less clear-cut. It suggests British aims in Afghanistan could have been met by a far smaller, more strategically focused force.
On Iraq, it concludes that the US-led invasion and occupation led to many more deaths than would have been the case if Saddam Hussein had been contained rather than overthrown.
Most damningly, it concludes that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic misjudged the ability of military might and money to effect change in countries with no history of democracy.
“The underlying flaw in both of these operations was that US and UK leaders thought that their superior military power, along with large amounts of money, could shift foreign societies onto quite different paths of political development,” the report says.
“As these interventions come to an end, debate will continue as to whether or not they made a difference for the better. The most important conclusion, however, may be that in the end their contribution to change was much lower than that resulting from other factors, most of which have proven remarkably resistant to shaping by outside powers.”
The report coincided with the US administration’s announcement that President Obama will seek to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after the war formally ends later this year.
In a chapter of the RUSI book written by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the think-tank’s research director and special adviser to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, it concludes that the UK’s most successful interventions were those with “clear but limited strategic objectives”. In contrast it criticises the second Iraqi and latter Afghan campaigns, which it says “deserve to be called strategic failures”.
In particular it cites attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan and counter-narcotic operations as being particularly ineffectual.
“The intervention in southern Afghanistan did not succeed in reducing opium production in Helmand – one of the main reasons the UK chose to focus its efforts on what is an otherwise relatively unimportant province in economic or strategic terms,” it concludes. “Afghanistan remains the world’s leading producer and cultivator of opium and cultivation in Helmand is higher today than it was before the British arrived.”
In Iraq the report concludes the US-led invasion caused many more civilian deaths than would have been the case if Saddam had remained in power. “While leaving Saddam in power would have involved other costs in terms of human development and human security, these would probably not have led to casualties on the scale of the civil war that followed the invasion,” it concludes.
“Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators of the late 20th century. [But] by 2003 the scale of these misdeeds had been much reduced, not least because of the containment measures put in place after 1991.”
However, in a foreword to the book, General Sir David Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff, suggested any failures in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be used as an argument not to use force again in the future.
“History is clear,” he writes. “There will sometimes be no alternative to standing up for oneself, for one’s friends or for what is right. Too many people, the intelligentsia to the fore, are in denial of this inevitability.”
£30bn would pay for…
1,464,000 more NHS nurses
408,000 NHS consultants
75% of the HS2 budget
By Oliver Wright