The Costs of War: Osama, Afghanistan, and Iraq

National Journal has run an excellent story on the financial aspect of Osama bin Laden’s death. Frankly, it’s pretty sobering to think about. The article begins:
“By conservative estimates, bin Laden cost the United States at least $3 trillion over the past 15 years, counting the disruptions he wrought on the domestic economy, the wars and heightened security triggered by the terrorist attacks he engineered, and the direct efforts to hunt him down.”

It continues to discuss the implications of those economic costs, as well as the lack of direct economic benefits the U.S. has gained since incurring them. For example, WWII brought the U.S. out of the Great Depression and created an enormous middle class via the GI Bill. The only tangible advancement of this past decade is a great expansion in unmanned military technology (primarily aviation).

Compare that story with this comment by George Will of the Washington Post, from his column “The War that Wasn’t, on May 3, 2011:

Jim Lacey of the Marine Corps War College notes that General David Petraeus has said that there are perhaps about 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. “Did anyone,” Lacey asks, “do the math?” There are, he says, more than 140,000 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, or 1,400 for every Al Qaeda fighter. It costs about $1 million/year to deploy and support every soldier – or up to $140 billion, or close to $1.5 billion/year, for each Al Qaeda fighter. “In what universe to we find strategists to whom this makes sense?”

OBL’s death was a pyrrhic victory. Because it has imposed unsustainable costs on the American public, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen pointed out last June: “Our national debt is our biggest national security threat.” If we don’t restructure, resize, and allow natural shaping processes to occur – we’ll have let the tail wag the dog. Hopefully those in power that recognize the unsustainable nature of our defense expenditure. Per capita, the U.S. citizen spent $2,290 on defense in 2008 (based on IISS Military Balance figures). The UK, $998; Japan, $362; Germany, $570; Australia, $1,056; S. Korea, $500; China, $45. I’m not suggesting that we drop off the map and become an isolationist nation – merely that the logical conclusion to this is paring back some of the increase in defense expenditure from the past decade. What has worked and what has been excessive? We’ve come so far, so fast with much of the spending…that a period of reflection on it’s efficacy and efficiency is warranted.

Last thought goes to cost in relation to OBL’s death and comes in the form of a quotation from Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution: “I take no great satisfaction in his death because I’m still amazed at the devastation and how high a burden he placed on us.”

 

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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