20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 lives

“between direct ground troop assaults (up to and including the assassination of Osama bin Laden), targeted drone strikes, and a greatly expanded system of intelligence sharing both among US intelligence agencies (like the CIA and FBI, which famously failed to share intelligence before 9/11) and with foreign intelligence agencies, al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities have been badly degraded, especially when it comes to attacking the US.

This is not merely because of successes in the US-led war on terror. ISIS, a group that emerged as a direct result of the war, became a more effective recruiter of young aspiring militants than al-Qaeda, especially in 2014 and 2015. But it seems fair to credit at least a good share of the group’s weakening to US actions.”

“Let’s suppose for the sake of argument, though, that al-Qaeda was capable of more attacks on the scale of 9/11, and that absent the war on terror, the US would have lost 3,000 people (the approximate death toll on 9/11) annually due to al-Qaeda strikes. That amounts to some 60,000 lives saved to date. Whoa, if true.

But even with that degraded capability, global deaths from al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Taliban attacks have not fallen since 9/11. While al-Qaeda’s ability to attack America has been badly degraded, its operations in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Libya are still significant and deadly. ISIS’s attacks, and those of the pre-conquest Taliban in Afghanistan, were even deadlier.”

The Costs of War Project estimates that between 897,000 and 929,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other post-9/11 war zones. These are conservative figures; they exclude, for instance, civilian deaths in countries like the Philippines and Kenya that have seen drone or special ops engagements but for which reliable civilian death figures are not available. It uses only confirmed deaths that are directly due to the wars, rather than estimated deaths using mortality surveys”

“Crawford and Lutz estimate that 15,262 American military members, Defense Department civilians, and contractors have died in these conflicts — a much lower toll.”

“The most comprehensive attempt I’ve seen of a cost-benefit analysis of counterterrorism policies is in the book Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security, a 2011 book by political scientist John Mueller and engineering professor Mark G. Stewart.

They estimate the cost of a 9/11-scale attack at roughly $200 billion, both in economic costs in rebuilding, health care for survivors, and reduced business activity in the wake of the attack, and, more important, in the lives of those lost. To calculate the latter, they use a measure known as the value of a statistical life. The idea is to use, for instance, the extra wages that workers in especially dangerous jobs demand to be paid to estimate how much the typical person is willing to pay to extend their life.

In Mueller and Stewart’s book, they put the value of a statistical life in the US at $6.5 million (that’s actually lower than the $7 million a recent review of studies found). Using that, the gross cost of the war on terror falls to “only” about $13.9 trillion.

That implies that for the war on terror to have been worth it, it had to have prevented more than 69 9/11-scale attacks over the past two decades, or about 3.5 attacks every single year.

More plausibly, the war on terror could be justified through, say, the far greater number of lives saved through aid to the Afghan health system.

Here, too, though, the necessary number of lives saved needs to be enormous to justify the costs. At a total cost of $13.9 trillion and a value of $6.5 million per life saved, the entire effort would have had to save at least 2.1 million lives to have been worthwhile.

There’s simply no evidence suggesting that the war on terror, or the public health programs launched as part of it, saved that many lives on net. The only estimate I’ve seen in that territory is the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon telling his colleague Jonathan Rauch that he “guesstimates that U.S. activities [in Afghanistan] saved a million or more lives.””

“It is also important to think of the opportunity cost of the war. Coincident with the war’s launch was the initiation of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. That program, then and now, buys and distributes massive quantities of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV and AIDS in developing countries, and promotes condom distribution and other prevention measures.

One influential study of PEPFAR’s impact found that in its first four years, in 12 specific focus countries, the program reduced the death rate from HIV by 10.5 percent, resulting in 1.2 million lives saved, at a cost of $2,450 per death averted. It is truly one of George W. Bush’s great achievements.

That implies that the US, by expanding funding for HIV treatment and in other cost-effective areas like malaria prevention, could save 2 million lives at a cost of more like $5 billion, or less than one-thousandth the cost of the war on terror.

When you step back and think about the cost of the war on terror and all the possible benefits that could have come from it, you would be hard-pressed to arrive at a place where the benefits outstrip the costs. Indeed, the former never comes remotely close to the latter. The war on terror was as wasteful, and morally horrific, on the balance sheet as it was in the collective memory.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *