Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has spent $3.6 trillion on wars. When you add in the amount of war funding that the departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security have requested for next year — and then the estimated costs of our present commitments to veterans — the overall price tag comes to $4.79 trillion, according to a new report by Brown University’s Watson Institute.
For $4.79 trillion we could forgive all outstanding student-loan debt in the United States, provide universal preschool to all American children, buy ourselves a high-speed rail system — and still have a couple trillion left over for a rainy day.
What, precisely, did we decide to buy instead?
The ostensible answer is that we purchased greater national security. After all, the vast majority of that war funding was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan — interventions that were launched to combat the threat of terrorism.
But a recent note from the Soufan Group, a strategic security firm, argues that the threat posed by terrorism is greater today than it was 15 years ago:
Fifteen years later, the geopolitical consequences of the September 11, 2001 attacks have not diminished with each passing anniversary. Quite the opposite, the global terror threat has compounded and cascaded. In the aftermath of the deadliest terror attack in history, the U.S. and its allies laid out several goals and policy responses; chief among the goals was the prevention of another 9/11-scale attack; the denial of terrorist sanctuaries such as Afghanistan; the destruction of al-Qaeda; and countering the violent extremist ideology of bin-Ladinism. As the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, only one of these goals—the prevention of an attack nearing the scale of 9/11—has been met. While the prevention of another such attack is a significant achievement, many of the other post-9/11 concerns are considerably worse now than in 2001.
Now, a firm that sells strategic security services has plenty of incentive not to conclude that the war on terror has already been won. But it’s hard to dispute the assertion that extremist ideologies and terrorist strongholds have become more prevalent in the last 15 years, even as America has spent trillions trying to counter them.
And, of course, the true costs of our counterterrorism efforts are measured in more than dollars.