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.”

A Declassified Case Against Torture

“Mitchell had never interrogated a terrorist. In fact, he had never interrogated anyone at all. His methods were not just cruel but bizarre. Abu Zubaydah was left naked and sleep-deprived as CIA officers blasted loud music into his cell. An interrogator playing the role of God would say “Tell me what you know?” only to leave the room every time Abu Zubaydah responded, “What do you want to know?” At one point, the CIA left a crayon in Abu Zubaydah cell, hoping he would spontaneously write down valuable information. Even other CIA officers on the ground were uncomfortable with these techniques. The pressure to torture came from the highest levels of the Bush administration.

Higher-ups eventually noticed that the information had stopped coming and gave Soufan permission to try his own methods. The torture stopped, and Abu Zubaydah began providing useful information again, leading to the arrest of wannabe bomber Jose Padilla.”

“Abu Zubaydah was extensively tortured after that. His mental state deteriorated, and he lost an eye. The information he provided under torture did not stop a single terrorist plot, but the Bush administration used some of it to justify the invasion of Iraq. In 2005, CIA officers destroyed videotapes of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation in order to cover their tracks. The following year, Abu Zubaydah was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he told a U.S. military tribunal that he had made false statements just to make the pain stop.”

“Soufan managed to build a rapport with several detainees at Guantanamo Bay without torture. One prisoner—who knew bin Laden’s wife, it turns out—even promised to provide more information if the FBI allowed him to call his family. Soufan agreed, but the U.S. military officers at Guantanamo Bay refused. Those officials “wouldn’t let a detainee use a phone for a minute, which would have led to bin Laden,” Soufan writes, “but they didn’t mind disregarding the U.S. Constitution” with their harsh treatment of prisoners.

In September 2002, Pakistani forces handed militants Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Hassan bin Attash to the CIA. (Bin Attash is named only by a pseudonym in the book.) Soufan was given 45 minutes to interrogate them, against the wishes of CIA headquarters. Bin Attash knew that Soufan had previously treated suspects with kindness. Deciding to cooperate, he spilled the beans on Al Qaeda’s plot to blow up an oil tanker in Yemen.

The CIA refused to believe that bin Attash was telling the truth and transferred him to an unnamed country to be tortured. Al Qaeda blew up the MV Limburg off the coast of Yemen the next month, just as bin Attash had warned. The attack killed one, wounded 12, and caused an oil spill.

Soufan left the FBI in 2005. He testified against torture to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009 and remains an outspoken critic of the excesses of the war on terror.”

Labeling groups like the Proud Boys “domestic terrorists” won’t fix anything

“Canada recently designated the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group, as a terrorist organization, a move that has put pressure on President Joe Biden’s administration to take similar punitive action against the group and others who participated in January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

The Congressional Research Service has asserted that the Capitol insurrection was an act of domestic terrorism, as defined by federal regulations and law. The FBI has identified the criminal activity by the Proud Boys as a domestic terrorism threat.

But while the federal government maintains a list of foreign terrorist organizations, it does not have a mechanism to formally designate domestic terrorist organizations. National security experts argue that creating one would not only invite legal challenges, but would do little to improve law enforcement’s response to the nascent threat of domestic terrorism.

Creating such a list would raise legitimate First Amendment concerns because it could potentially be used to target political dissidents on both the left and the right. Experts also say it’s ill-suited to address the kind of domestic terrorist attacks and plots that the US is facing, which according to the Department of Homeland Security, primarily come from right-wing extremists acting as individuals, rather than as organized groups.

The best way forward, they say, is for the federal government to better employ existing tools to combat domestic terrorism — a threat that was not prioritized by former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly refused to denounce white nationalists and told those who stormed the Capitol, “We love you.”

“Violent white supremacists are not a new problem,” Faiza Patel, the director of liberty and national security at the Brennan Center for Justice, said. “Law enforcement has dealt with them before and can do so again. The FBI’s robust response to the attack on the Capitol shows that these groups can be investigated and prosecuted under existing law, undercutting any argument for new tools.””

America’s weak gun laws enable shootings by terrorists and extremists

“America’s weak gun laws make it much easier to commit shootings like these. This is a widely known fact, including among terrorist groups. Back in 2011, a now-dead American al-Qaeda operative, Adam Gadahn, said as much in a video to supporters”

“Every country is home to extremists and other hateful individuals. People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone who’s extreme, hateful, or otherwise angry is able to pull out a gun and kill someone — there are so many guns around and few barriers to obtaining the weapons.”

“The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is also pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not only with homicides but also with suicides”

“the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime”

“Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence specifically, driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.”

“Researchers have found that stricter gun laws could help. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tend to be followed by a drop in gun violence, a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives. A review of the US evidence by RAND also linked some gun control measures, including background checks, to lower rates of injuries and deaths. A growing body of evidence from Johns Hopkins researchers further supports the efficacy of laws that require a license to buy and own guns.

That doesn’t mean bigots and extremists will never be able to carry out shootings in places with stricter gun laws. Even the strictest gun laws can’t prevent every shooting.

Guns are not the only contributor to violence, either. Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and the strength of criminal justice systems.”