16 years, $5.6 trillion later, are the post-9/11 wars worth it?

16 years, $5.6 trillion later, are the post-9/11 wars worth it?
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This week the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute released a report that estimates the current and future costs of U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other post-9/11 conflicts at an astonishing $5.6 trillion. That’s more than $23,000 per taxpayer.

Those funds dwarf the $1 trillion in cuts in domestic programs over a decade’s time that were called for by the Budget Control Act of 2011, and would have gone a long way to address unmet domestic needs for infrastructure investment, transportation, nutrition, housing, and education.

The $5.6 trillion figure raises two fundamental questions. What did we pay for, and what were the results?

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The assessment of war costs, researched and written by Neta Crawford of Boston University, takes a comprehensive view of the subject, looking not just at Pentagon expenditures but also at expenditures at the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Veteran’s Administration that were either explicitly devoted to or caused by the “war on terrorism.” It also includes U.S. spending in support of allies like Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania that devoted troops to the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The estimate also includes $1 trillion in projected future costs for taking care of the veterans of the post-9/11 conflicts, one million of whom are receiving compensation for war-related disabilities, including over 327,000 with traumatic brain injuries.

As the case of U.S. veterans makes clear, the costs of the wars involved more than just money. They involved the lives and health of human beings. In another assessment, released in 2016, Brown University conservatively estimated that there were 370,000 deaths on all sides attributable to the post-9/11 wars, including 200,000 civilians.

Was this huge expenditure of blood and treasure worth it?  Did it substantially reduce the risks of terrorism, or reduce the likelihood of future conflicts? The short answer is no.

In Afghanistan, 16 years of U.S. military involvement have left a situation in which the Taliban still controls significant parts of the country and is able to carry out devastating attacks on a regular basis.  There is no military solution to the Afghan conflict, no matter how many troops the United States throws into the fray.  Only a negotiated settlement premised on accountable governance and an end to rampant corruption has a chance of succeeding.

In Iraq, despite recent successes in wresting territory from ISIS, the overall effort since the Bush administration’s 2003 intervention has been a net failure, in lives lost, infrastructure destroyed, and the rise of a sectarian government that made it easier for ISIS to operate and recruit within the country.

Even if the United States and its allies succeed in driving ISIS out of Iraq and Syria, it is unlikely to undermine that organization’s ability to inflict damage in the United States.  Recent terrorist incidents — not to mention gun violence inflicted by U.S. citizens with no tie to ISIS or any other terrorist group — have been carried out by individuals who need no material support from ISIS to carry out their activities. Many of them are ideological adherents of ISIS whose main connection is via propaganda downloaded from the internet, not training in ISIS strongholds in Iraq, Syria, or anywhere else.

The $5.6 trillion in funds devoted to the post-9/11 wars are basically gone, except the future commitments to our veterans, which must not be compromised in any way, and may in fact need to be increased to truly meet the needs generated by their service in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

We need a thorough rethinking of how best to address the terrorist threat that involves a better balance between military and non-military tools, and an aversion to engagement in wars like those the United States has waged in this century.  Now is the time to do this re-assessment.

After 15 years of nonstop conflict, the American public is war weary, and the needs for domestic investment have never been greater.  If the Trump administration fails to rethink our misguided strategy, Congress must do so.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.