The hidden costs behind another American conflict
“The World Trade Center is on fire”
This was the title of the email alerting me to the unfolding of the most seismic event of my life until that point. Like millions of others, we assembled around the TV in the office to witness the horrific events taking place in Manhattan, appalled by an act of terrorism claiming almost 3,000 lives.
I wasn’t born when Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, but as a defining “where were you when you heard about the 9/11 attacks?” moment, this was on a par.
We know what followed — the US Congress agreed to the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists and invading Afghanistan to deal with the Taliban and al-Qaeda groups as the “War on Terror” began.
With the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the situation has gone full circle with the chaotic withdrawal of US and allied troops and personnel and a resurgent Taliban re-establishing their control of the country.
This raises many questions about what happens now to civilians of Afghanistan and ongoing foreign policy for the US and its allies. But there are other questions that need asking:
Was an $8 trillion “War on Terror” ultimately worth it?
Could the US have taken a different path?
The human cost
A recent report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University, looking at many aspects of the 20-year period following 9/11, estimates between 897k and 929k “direct war deaths” resulting from the various conflicts, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. If you remove opposition fighters from this number, the total is between 600k and 626k fatalities. Both figures are an appalling loss of human life.
The latter estimate includes US Military personnel, contractors, other allied troops, civilians, journalists, NGO workers and national military and police. This figure (without including opposing combatants) is over 200 times the death toll from the 9/11 attacks.
The financial cost
The same Brown University report also calculates the overall cost of the 20-year “War on Terror” to be $8 trillion, with over a quarter of this ($2.3 trillion) attributed to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Investment in counter-insurgency, development of the Afghan Security Forces, humanitarian aid, developing political governance and supporting the US military are amongst the areas funds went to. Despite this colossal investment, it took the Taliban just 10 days to reclaim power.
The environmental cost
This might seem a strange thread to pull here, but the US — and the rest of the world — faces a much more existential threat than the “War on Terror”, and that is climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report in August, noting:
Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia.
In response, President Biden tweeted:
“We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis. The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. And the cost of inaction keeps mounting.”
The recent visit of Storm Ida previews what we can expect more of thanks to continual climate inaction.
But why is this relevant to the “War on Terror”?
According to recent analyses, the US military is one of the largest polluters on the planet and its fuel consumption makes it the “47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world”.
Brown University’s Costs of War Project notes that:
This paper estimates US military emissions and military fuel usage for the US post-9/11 wars. The best estimate of total US military greenhouse gas emissions (including installations and operations) from 2001 when the wars began with the US invasion of Afghanistan, through FY2018, is 1,267 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (measured in CO2equivalent, or CO2e). The Overseas Contingency Operations (war-related) greenhouse gas emissions portion of those emissions — including for the major war zones of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria — is estimated to be more than 440 Million Metric Tons of CO2e for the period of FY2001–2018.
In addition, it notes:
In 2017, for example, the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions (installations and operations) were greater than the greenhouse gas emissions of entire industrialized countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Portugal and also greater than all CO2 emissions from US production of iron and steel.
If the problems and expectations noted in the IPCC’s report remain unaddressed by governments, despite years of warnings, global climate change impact will soon surpass those from international terrorist threats.
The opportunity cost
Although a firm response to the 9/11 attacks was essential, the question remains about whether there were alternative options for spending the $8 trillion devoted to the “War on Terror”. Or, put another way, what is the opportunity cost for the US from not having invested these tax dollars elsewhere?
Steps to create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly society, to offset the carbon emissions of military activity, would be one place to start, but there are other considerations too.
You could point to the 669k US deaths from COVID-19 and the potential impact of different healthcare infrastructure investment decisions.
Add to this that 2020 estimates put the number of Americans without health insurance at 28.9 million, up from 26.7 million in 2016. That’s 8.7% of the population or one in twelve people.
There are different estimates on how much the “average American” should pay for health insurance, with some sources suggesting $3,414 per year, and others at $7,470 annually, and noting state variations. If we take an “average of the averages”, let’s settle on $5,442 as the current figure.
Let’s do some maths based on these scenarios and figures:
- 28.9 million uninsured Americans X $5,442 = approximately $157 billion
- 28.9 million uninsured Americans X $7,470 = approximately $216 billion
- 28.9 million uninsured Americans X $3,414 = approximately $99 billion
Consider that the $8 trillion bill for the “War on Terror”, averaged over 20-years, comes to $400 billion per year. Even with the highest of the estimates above, this is more than affordable within the budget.
Now factor in that according to a 2009 Harvard Medical School report published in the American Journal of Public Health that almost 45,000 deaths each year resulted from not having health insurance. If we then apply this across a 20-year window — as per the “War on Terror” — we are approaching almost 900k deaths, which may have been avoidable with investment in, or changes to, the health insurance model.
The domestic cost
While US foreign policy grapples with combatting the terrorist threats from al-Qaeda, ISIS and other extremist groups, it also battles with China and Russia for international domination. These will doubtless inflate the considerable coffers of the Department for Defense even further in upcoming years.
Yet a report published by the Pew Research Center in April this year, analysing the current domestic issues faced by US citizens across 15 areas, found “international terrorism” sat 14th on the list in terms of overall concern. The following six areas ranked the highest:
- The affordability of healthcare
- The federal budget deficit
- Violent crime
- Illegal immigration
- Gun violence
While only a sample of the population, it adds weight to the view that civilian priorities lie elsewhere, and whether these would now be such issues of concern if even only a proportion of the $8 trillion “War on Terror” investment had gone elsewhere.
Twenty years on from 9/11, is an $8 trillion bill, a huge death toll in global conflicts across the globe and missed opportunities for investment elsewhere, the legacy hoped for following that fateful day at the Twin Towers?
We must cherish the memories of those who died that day and never forget their unintended sacrifice. But with hindsight, was there a different path?
At the end of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson sat in the middle of the allied victors as the Paris Peace Conference passed judgement on the war’s aggressors. This led to, among other settlements, the Versailles Treaty, a future emblem of Nazi resentment and a rallying call for a new era of conflict and fanatics. Would Wilson and the other allied leaders have chosen a different peace path and response if they’d been able to glimpse the future?
Do any of Wilson’s sentiments in his 14 Point Plan for Peace in 1918 calling for “self-determination” by other states — no matter how abhorrent they may appear to be — still have relevance?
Should America still have the responsibility of being the “global policeman”, or is it just perpetuating a form of neo-colonialism in far-flung parts of the world at the expense of domestic issues?
These are uncomfortable, tough questions with no ready answers. As we remember the victims of 9/11 on this poignant anniversary, let’s also think about the wider impact of the “War on Terror” and whether there are better choices to make in the future.
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