Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

Foreign Assistance Budget

Each year since the beginning of the U.S.-led post-9/11 wars, Congress has appropriated money for international assistance, including to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The popular understanding of international assistance programs is that they deliver immediate needed disaster relief, or enhance the well being of people through economic development. That does happen, but funding amounts are very small compared to defense spending. In fiscal year 2020, the Pentagon spent $75 billion on contracts with Lockhead Martin, a defense corporation. This number is well over one and one-half times the entire budget for the State Department and Agency for International Development for that year, which totaled $44 billion.

Additionally, more than half of the international assistance spending related to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is for military or security uses.

U.S. government investigators have found widespread corruption, waste, and fraud among U.S. agencies and private contractors implementing aid programs. Projects were often carried out at exorbitant cost, despite serving small portions of the population. For example, a USAID-funded power plant cost an estimated $280 million per year to run  more than a third of total government tax revenues  but provided electricity to just 2% of Afghans. The DynCorp company was unable to account for $1 billion in U.S. funds it was given to train the Iraqi police. 

Where reconstruction money is spent on human development, officials too often emphasize demonstrable, short-term results such as a new school building over long-term sustainable change such as teacher training. Effective planning and monitoring mechanisms are needed that take into account the views of Afghans whom aid dollars are intended to serve.

Key Findings

  • The majority of U.S. international assistance spending related to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is for military or security purposes rather than economic and social development.

  • Significant amounts of U.S. international assistance money has been lost or misspent.


  • Congress should demand a full and detailed reporting of all funds expended under the label of international assistance related to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, including a breakdown of projects and their purpose.

  • Congress should extend and expand the missions of SIGAR and revive the mission of SIGIR to more fully inform Congress and the public on war and post-war assistance to those countries.

(Page updated as of September 2021)