How Many Billions Will Bombing ISIS Cost? What About Other Radicals?


While the Obama administration splits hairs over whether literally having armed American soldiers on Iraqi soil counts as "troops on the ground" (hint: It does) and quibbles about whether it's a good idea to arm so-called moderate rebels in Syria to fight ISIS (hint: The CIA says it's not), the U.S.'s primary strategy in Iraq War III has been airstrikes. How many billions of dollars is this going to cost America, though?

It's an important question posed by Foreign Affairs, which calculates that "current estimates put the yearly price tag for ISIS bombings at anywhere between $2.7 billion, if the current pace continues unchanged, and $10 billion, if the United States escalates the air campaign and expands it into Syria." Obama has suggested that fighting the Islamic state will take three years. The U.S. began conducting air surveillance over Syria last month, but so far has not dropped bombs.

Foreign Affairs contrasts this war with the March-October 2011 bombing campaign in Libya, which "was shared among several allies," and cost about $1.1 billion. The global price tag of bombing the Islamic State will rise since France just initiated its own campaign today.

Foreign Affairs

The journal has put together some impressive data on this war alongside comparisons to the U.S.'s other air campaigns in countries like Yemen and Somalia, and notes that "in the sheer number of strikes, the intensity of the U.S. effort against ISIS has already exceeded both of these much longer campaigns." The U.S. has already conducted 174 strikes in about a month's time (two since this Wednesday), compared to 350 in Pakistan, which we've been bombing since 2008. 

Also notable is that in past campaigns, "airstrikes took a small but significant toll on the civilian population."

The three-year war plan makes a big assumption that things go smoothly, which looks less and less likely as more volatile groups emerge.

There are now over 50 Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias fighting ISIS, which is Sunni Muslim. Foreign Policy notes that these "highly ideological, anti-American" groups commit human rights violations that make them hardly better than the Islamic State. They're doing just as much as their enemy to undermine the Baghdad government's claim to authority, and they're throwing a huge wrench in "Obama's stated goal of working with an inclusive Iraqi government to push back [ISIS]."

There's a big can of worms, and the president can't seem to resist opening it.