The war on terror has been a $6.4 trillion mistake

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Brown University’s Costs of War Project has unveiled its annual report on the budgetary costs and obligations the United States has incurred from the global war on terror. The report estimates that the federal government has spent $5.4 trillion thus far on our post-9/11 conflicts. And at least another $1 trillion in obligations will come due over the next several decades for veteran care.

To put that in perspective, the Marshall Plan, which provided aid to rebuild Europe after World War II (the deadliest conflict in history), cost roughly $135 billion in 2017 dollars, and the current gross domestic product of the U.S. is just north of $20 trillion. This means the “war on terror” has cost more than a quarter of the United States’ annual economic output and around 50 times the price of the Marshall Plan. And even if the U.S. withdrew completely from major war zones and ceased all other related war on terror activities today, the total cost will still continue to rise due to both the costs of veteran care and interest on the debt.

Was it worth it? Are we safer because of these investments? The answer to both questions is clearly a resounding “no.” After almost two decades, it’s time to move past the war on terror.

The events of Sept. 11 represented, understandably, a paradigm shift in Washington. Whereas before non-state terrorists were an afterthought, the images of the twin towers collapsing thrust them front and center in U.S. foreign policy. After nearly a decade of seemingly unparalleled safety — the Soviet Union had collapsed and the U.S. was the world’s sole superpower — existential threats suddenly seemed to be lurking around every corner. The mere existence of terrorism anywhere was deemed an unacceptable risk, and the U.S. was determined to eliminate it at nearly any cost.

But nearly 20 years later, we don’t have much to show for this multitrillion-dollar crusade.

The Middle East is more unstable than it has been at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Even after more than 18 years of American investment in Afghanistan, the Afghan government remains a corrupt rentier state that would likely collapse without the support of the international community. The U.S. was able to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq — but it was U.S. intervention that helped spawn ISIS in the first place.

And yet, the U.S. hasn’t suffered another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11. This can be explained independently of our actions in the war on terror.

Despite the failure to build a functioning, self-sufficient Afghan government, Afghanistan has not become a launching point for terrorists as it was before 2001. One reason for this is that the U.S. has made significant strides in its ability to track and target terrorists remotely. The combination of drone surveillance and airstrike capability, along with the ability to quickly process intelligence information, has made it easier to strike at threats from a distance. This keeps terrorists on their heels and disrupts their activities. It also provides us with an alternative to the endless occupation of Middle Eastern countries. Targeted counterterrorism can keep the U.S. safe — and doesn’t cost $6.4 trillion.

Additionally, al-Qaeda was successful on 9/11 not because they were savvy master criminals, but rather because they operated in a permissive security environment. They were not political priorities, and the U.S. was not eager to confront them. Obviously, that has since changed, and there is more than enough political will to launch attacks on terrorists who are trying to harm Americans.

In a world where the U.S. is not only aware of, but actively pursuing, anti-American threats, the ability of terrorist groups to carry out large-scale attacks is and will continue to be severely limited even without foreign occupation.

Washington plunged into the global war on terror as a means to keep America safe. But it is increasingly undeniable that the costs — in both blood and money — have been enormous and unjustified. We can protect the homeland without attempting to extend our influence over the entire globe. We shouldn’t endanger another generation and waste another $6 trillion before reversing this costly mistake.

Jerrod A. Laber is a fellow at Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.

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