Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

Foreign Assistance Budget

Each year since the US-led war on terror began, Congress has appropriated money for international assistance, primarily 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.

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

US government investigators have found widespread corruption, waste, and fraud among US 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 will cost an estimated $280 million per year to run – more than a third of total government tax revenues – but provide electricity to just 2 percent of Afghans. The DynCorp company was unable to account for $1 billion in US 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 US international assistance spending related to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan is for military or security purposes rather than economic and social development.

  • Significant amounts of US 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 January 2020)