Compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, the War in Libya Is Cheap

Critics of the military effort against Gaddafi said it would be too great of a financial burden

lybia strike reuters.JPG

F-18 war planes refuel over the Mediterranean sea /Reuters

When the international coalition intervened militarily in Libya's civil war on March 19, one of the criticisms that opponents most often repeated was the issue of potential costs. Senator Richard Lugar, for example, warned that "The fact is we cannot afford more wars now."

This genuine concern stemmed from the growing U.S. national debt, which has been exacerbated by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which collectively have cost the Pentagon a minimum of $1.3 trillion (in 2012 dollars) since 9/11. Even today, with U.S. combat troops in Iraq scheduled to fully withdraw in 142 days, and 33,000 troops returning home from Afghanistan over the next year, the costs to American taxpayer's for both wars remains staggeringly high. A March 2011 Congressional Research Service report estimated that military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were costing $6.7 billion and $6.2 billion a month, respectively. (In Pakistan, foreign aid and reimbursements given to the Pakistani military for counterinsurgency operations cost the United States around$300M a month.)


However, the worst fears about how much the intervention in Libya would cost have proven to be unfounded. The total direct expenditures to the United States in Libya over the past six months are less than the costs of one week of Iraq or Afghanistan. This amount for Libya includes military operations, humanitarian aid, and non-lethal assistance. That the U.S. role has been relatively affordable does not justify an intervention that was hastily assembled, legally dubious, and conducted with limited means that have failed to achieve the ultimate objective, which Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared was "to do what we can to bring down the regime of [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi."

The cost of military operations is difficult to determine, since the Pentagon has not been forthcoming regarding Libya. Nevertheless, five data points are available either from official releases or media leaks that can be used to extrapolate current expenditures: March 30, $550 million; April 11, $608 million; Mid-May, $664 million; June 3, $714 million; and June 30: $820 million. It is unclear if these numbers include replacing known aircraft loses, including the crashes of an F-15 on March 21 (roughly $30 million) and a MQ-8 Fire Scout on June 21 ($9 million). However, it can be assumed that U.S. military operations costs in Libya per month are between $60-$80 million, with total current costs around $1 billion.

The cost of humanitarian aid is easier to determine thanks to the weekly "Libya: Disaster Response Updates," which the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has published since late February. The latest update lists the total USAID and State Department humanitarian funding at $84 million.

Finally, the amount of (overt) non-lethal assistance has remained $25 million since the April 26 presidential memorandum, which authorized the "drawdown of nonlethal commodities and services from the inventory and resources of any agency of the United States Government... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya." It is unclear if all of this non-lethal assistance has been dispersed. On May 10, the State Department announced that one shipment of halal meals, medical supplies, uniforms, boots, and tents had been made, with a second shipment arriving in Benghazi on June 17.

Therefore, based on the available data, the total direct expenditures of America's role in Libya is approximately $1.1 billion and counting. Assuredly, there are also covert funds being dispersed (hopefully, with close congressional oversight), and there will be equipment and munitions replacement costs that require additional future funds. In addition, it is impossible to calculate what U.S. personnel and resources will be needed to help stabilize and rebuild Libya after the civil war ends. (For an excellent overview on U.S. options for a post-Qaddafi Libya, read this Contingency Planning Memorandum by Daniel Serwer.)

That the American role in the intervention in Libya has been relatively inexpensive does not mean it was strategically wise. Furthermore, almost six months in the end date remains predominantly in the hands of one political leader. On the eve of the military intervention, Muammar Qaddafi vowed to fight a long war "with unlimited patience and deep faith." Unfortunately, he was telling the truth, and the people of Libya are paying the ultimate price.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org.

Presented by

Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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