Now four months into the U.S. response to the Islamic State, or ISIS, Americans have yet to hear a credible projection from our government on how long this campaign will last, or how many taxpayer dollars it will take. Meanwhile, Pentagon officials are increasingly using the fight against ISIS as an excuse to argue for more Pentagon spending. Given a recent and disastrous history of bungled war spending predictions, Americans deserve to know what we are being asked to pay, and how we will pay for it.

First, the official estimates: the Pentagon’s first estimate of the costs of intervention between mid-June and late-August was $7.5 million per day. At that rate, the U.S. has spent $850 million on operations against ISIS as of October 8, adding up to about $2.74 billion per year. The Pentagon has since revised the estimate up to as high as $10 million per day, or $3.65 billion per year. In reality, both of those numbers are quite likely to be underestimates of what’s to come.

ADVERTISEMENT

For one thing, those costs don’t include “out of theater” aid and training to Syrian forces, humanitarian missions or other costs that are already being incurred. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary assessment estimates that higher intensity airstrikes could drive the base costs as high as $6.8 billion per year.  There are currently around 1,600 troops on the ground, guiding U.S. airstrikes, protecting U.S. assets and gathering intelligence. Increasing “boots on the ground” significantly, which some have advocated, could total up to $20 billion per year.

Given the recent history of government low-balling war cost estimates, these higher estimates look entirely plausible, even likely. Remember that President Bush originally claimed the Iraq war would cost just $50 to $60 billion. The cost of that war is now $817 billion and counting.

Still, the difference between an annual cost estimate of $3 billion and $20 billion is almost embarrassingly small money in Pentagon terms, so why fuss? Because in an era of fervent budget cutting, when perpetual war has already contributed significantly to the national debt, these amounts are more than enough to make or break many needed domestic programs.

Take President Obama’s unfunded fiscal year 2014 request for a $6 billion home energy retrofit program to create jobs and address climate change. Or this year’s longshot request for $750 million to kick off Preschool for All, a relatively tiny investment in something that has real bipartisan support and demonstrated impact. Or the fact that extending unemployment insurance for millions of Americans who haven’t bounced back from the Great Recession would cost less than the difference between the cost estimates to fight ISIS.

Paradoxically, whatever the price tag, the Pentagon can afford it without needing any new funding. That’s partly because the Pentagon’s massive budget – more than $586 billion for 2014 – has already been relatively insulated from sequestration cuts that affected domestic spending.

Consider the war funding account known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). President Obama requested $60 billion in fiscal year 2015. Instead, it is starting the year with level funding at $85 billion. The fund is exempt from the limits imposed by sequestration. Considering plans for drastic troop draw-downs in Afghanistan, that amount is excessive, and many budget watchers now refer to OCO as the Pentagon’s “slush fund.” The Pentagon even recently requested to repurpose some of those funds for the development of its overdue, over budget F-35 aircraft, signaling that they really don’t need the funds for war.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon itself has previously identified opportunities to spend less. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work recently told the Council on Foreign Relations that the Pentagon had proposed up to $70 billion in cuts, which Congress denied. That’s $70 billion in wasted money that could have funded needed domestic programs many times over. The money is there – both to fight ISIS and to invest in domestic initiatives – if members of Congress will put the interests of national security and wide-reaching domestic programs above pet projects and pork barrel spending.

Experts widely acknowledge that the U.S. commitment to “degrade and destroy” ISIS may take years. If we want to advance any of the many American priorities not based in Middle East conflict over the coming years, Americans deserve to hear a complete and credible estimation of how much it will cost to fight ISIS, and how their government intends to pay for it.

Koshgarian is research director at National Priorities Project, www.nationalpriorities.org.