War on Terror


America's costly, counterproductive War on Terror.


It took nearly a decade after 9/11 to catch and kill Osama bin Laden. During that time, America launched two wars and a new cabinet-level security agency while funneling money into the defense budget at record levels. This was the United States government's response to bin Laden, yet very little of it contributed to his capture. We know what bin Laden cost us: thousands of American lives, a sense of safety and security for millions more. But now, with bin Laden finally dead, America and its leaders must also come to grips with what we have chosen to spend reacting to his acts of terror—and the sad fact that most of it wasn't worth the price.

In the decade since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has added roughly $950 billion in additional base spending to the defense budget. That's not total spending; it's merely the increase over the baseline versus if we'd held military spending constant starting in 2000. Nor does that number include the cost of two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—almost $1.3 trillion as of March 2011—or the $359 billion spent on the Department of Homeland Security, a sort of meta-agency created in 2002 to help coordinate the federal government's tangled web of security initiatives.

It's a massive commitment of time, money, and manpower, and it costs taxpayers dearly. Annual defense spending increased 84 percent between 2001 and 2011 in 2005-constant dollars. On an individualized basis, the United States spends vastly more than any other country on national security, with more than $2,000 in per capita spending. The United Kingdom, by contrast, spends less than $1,000 per capita.

Not all of this new spending can be directly attributed to 9/11. But much of it can—especially the wars. What are we getting for all that money? Not as much as one might hope. In fact, if the goal is to protect the nation from terrorist threats in the future, much of the post-9/11 response may have actually undermined our interests.

"We are spending today more in real inflation adjusted dollars on our military than we spent at any time during the cold war," says Christopher Preble, the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, "Yet in terms of Department of Defense spending, Pentagon spending, the cost of base budget, and the wars, very, very little of it has helped much in terms of counterterrorism. And it's probably been counterproductive in many cases."

The nation's biggest post-9/11 mistake? "Invading and occupying Iraq for 10 years," Preble says—and, along the same lines, thinking that terrorism is a problem best addressed with large-scale military action. "We respect the military. I do. Most Americans do. And yet the military really hasn't played a large role in counterterrorism operations, even since 9/11. And the cases that we think of where the military has played a very large role—I think in retrospect those cases not only haven't helped with counterterrorism, they've made the problem worse."

The problem isn't just that wars cost American lives and money. It's that they divert resources that could be spent more productively on decidedly less bombastic activities, such as monitoring electronic communications, infiltrating terror cells, and securing loose nukes. But these actions aren't as visible. Wars, in other words, can make nations feel powerful while helping to render them powerless.

That's doubly frustrating because there are effective, if less showy, actions that America can and should be taking in order to protect its citizens from terrorism. Preble says that killing or capturing top terrorist agitators is "important." And if we're looking to perfect our terrorist takedowns, we ought to be scrutinizing the details of the operation that led us to bin Laden.

"We should really strive to understand the bin Laden case," he says, as well the makeup of operations that took out other top Al Qaeda leaders. When we do, he suspects that we'll find that the techniques involved are sometimes time-intensive, but not particularly expensive—certainly not in the way that most long-term military responses tend to be. "Yes, there are costs associated with training and recruiting sources," he says. "But it's several orders of magnitude away from having a division, a combat brigade, in a foreign country stationed there for a year or more."

Just as important is that those techniques don't manifest themselves as disruptions in the everyday lives of American citizens. "What about the other things we've done that haven't been military related?" Preble asks. He delivers a laundry list. "The Patriot Act. Airport screening. Warrantless wiretapping. Indefinite detention of American citizens. The president putting out a contract on an American citizen, which we now have effectively. Were any of those things essential, or even instrumental in capturing bin Laden? I haven't seen any evidence that this is the case."

Hunting terrorists the most effective way, he says, "does not inconvenience Americans. It does not inhibit their liberties." But as is all too clear, that's not the way we chose to pursue our response to 9/11. Bin Laden cost us plenty, and he deserved to pay for his crimes. But the response we chose cost us dearly too.

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

NEXT: Budgepocalypse Update

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. http://www.oblfishfood.com/

    Thought this was a pretty clever gift to commemorate the time. It’s at least cheaper than are ‘war on terror’ – nice article btw.

  2. None of us know with certainty whether the military has effectively cut terrorism and yes we should strive to understand Bin Laden’s case.

    I’m interested to know if an autopsy was performed, as it never made sense to me that they would not

    1. shut up.

    2. I’m pretty sure the cause of death is not in dispute.

      1. I want to know if he had a kidney transplant, or was treated for renal failure at a local hospital.

        1. Why is it always about the urinary tract with you?

  3. As I said the other day on generally the same subject ‘This is what I’ve been saying for about 10 years!’. Again, at least it’s nice to finally have some company.

  4. Hunting terrorists the most effective way, he says, “does not inconvenience Americans. It does not inhibit their liberties.”

    Uh, what? I thought Bush/Obama destroyed the constitution by using special renditions and Guantanamo and enhanced interrogations?

    Are they saying that we didn’t need these things to get Bin Laden and stop future attacks?

    1. “They” aren’t saying anything. The words you are quoting are those of Christopher Preble, the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

      I am waiting for Team Obama to tell us the Obamacare, the Stimulus, the GM bailout, and raising the debt ceiling led to the shooting of Bin Laden.

      1. Interesting angle, #2 — and if we don’t continue to plunder and loot the domestic economy, we’ll never quite get terrorism under control.

      2. I’m waiting for someone to explain to me what other means of eliminating al-qaeda and OBL as a threat to the US were possible after 9/11.

        Especially considering Obama campaigned on a platform designed to rollback all of the things Bush put in place to achieve this goal. He didn’t roll back any of these programs (or close Guantanamo) and in fact needed said programs to get OBL once and for all.

        Suderman et al. have rightfully protested the over reactions to 9/11, of which I believe there were plenty, but the ones that counted appear to have worked considering OBL is now shrakfood and al-qaeda has lost its momentum in the Arab world.

        1. Issuing Letters of Marque to Somali Pirates.

  5. During the Bush administration, I didn’t hear any libertarians complaining about the costs of the war on terror. Now that Obama is prosecuting it effectively, suddenly it’s an infringement on civil liberties and a cost we cannot bear.

    Now that Obama has improved our health care, brought the previously out of control and ruinous financial industry on Wall Street under control and found Bin Laden, the libertarians are struggling to finds ways to avoid admitting that their small government fantasies are just that: fantasies.

    1. “”During the Bush administration, I didn’t hear any libertarians complaining about the costs of the war on terror.”‘

      Then you weren’t listening.

    2. Tony: Here’s Veronique de Rugy’s 2008 Reason cover story on America’s trillion dollar war on terror: https://reason.com/archives/200…..dollar-war

      Published while Bush was president!

    3. is that ToneTone seems to have just discovered national defense and the war on terror — and so happy Tone seems to have another bottomless government pit to throw away plundered tax dollars….

    4. During the Bush administration, I didn’t hear any libertarians complaining about the costs of the war on terror.

      You’re either blatantly lying or so thoughtlessly ignorant on the issue that offering such a baseless opinion is intellectually dishonest.

      Actually, it’s so mind-numbingly stupid that, now that I re-read it, it must be a Tony spoof.

      1. Just because Tony is stupid it does not mean he is not also ignorant.

        1. There’s no way this isn’t trolling. 1 second of searching reason.com blows that theory out of the water. Add to that the claims that BHO has fixed healthcare and Wallstreet (if by “fix”, you mean “give billions of dollars to my buddies”), and it’s simply not serious.

    5. “the libertarians are struggling to finds ways to avoid admitting that their small government fantasies are just that: fantasies.”

      Just because a species of flying pig *hasn’t* evolved, doesn’t mean that it *can’t*.

      Insert “small government” for “species of flying pig,” and you’ll see that your argument is incorrect.

    6. Shut the fuck up, dipshit.

    7. Yeah, Tony, good point. These cry-baby libertards don’t know what they’re talking about!

    8. “During the Bush administration, I didn’t hear any libertarians complaining about the costs of the war on terror. ”

      See my comment above.

    9. He has also made everyone a flying car.
      Avian swine continuously ascend from anal sphincters too…

    10. http://www.google.com/#sclient…..3375cf906e

      You really have no idea what you’re talking about do you?

    11. Tony are yu really as stupid as you sound? We heard nothing BUT complaints about the cost and how the war was prosicuted when Bush was president.

      You are a fool.

    12. “During the Bush administration, I didn’t hear any libertarians complaining about the costs of the war on terror.”

      Actually, it was part of Ron Paul’s platform when he ran for president. One of the primary reasons I voted against him.

  6. with Bush, they thought they were in the midst of a bad dream, to awaken at some point. Unfortunately, it looks like the bad dream is not over, with Obama’s voracious looting at home and out-of-control spending on the Asian/African wars — with no end in sight. It’s a wonder he hasn’t tried to reinstate the draft. What an ongoing nightmare.

    1. Somehow, the military still has enough recruits to supply its personnel. When Obama invades Cote d’Ivoire next year and President Trump invades China in 2013, we’ll need one. President (insert big-oil politician here) will need one when we invade Venuzela and Iran in 2017.

        1. Someone please insert Hillary. I won’t

    2. 30 to 50 percent of the people I interact with/know (varied through the time period) hated Bush’s guts for his statism. And I live in a country-club Republican/substantial minority Democrat area. And about half the people I know are staunch constitutionalists like me. So take a wild guess as to how many Bush-hating people there were throughout the country, all through his presidency.

      You’re so full of shit, Tony.

      1. Forgot to edit name post-spoof, and intended for Tony. Apologies.

  7. I didn’t hear any libertarians complaining about the costs of the war on terror.

    You are completely and utterly full of shit.

  8. “And yet the military really hasn’t played a large role in counterterrorism operations, even since 9/11.”

    So which part of the American government has been responsible for most of the drone strikes, the raid on OBL, and fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan? Mostly the military. And yes the Taliban became an enemy when they their hat into the ring with Al-Qaeda pre and post 9/11.

    1. So which part of the American government has been responsible for most of the drone strikes, the raid on OBL, and fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan?

      This pretends that drone strikes and fighting the Taliban is “counterterrorism.” The CIA was every bit, if not more, responsible for taking out OBL as the Navy.

      The same CIA says that there are less than one hundred members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, so fighting doesn’t really count as “counterterrorism.” It’s more like “makemoreterrorism” with all the civilians we’ve killed.

      1. The percentage of civilians killed by actual US attacks is much less than that killed by the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
        And the logic that comes from the argument that killing them only makes more combatants is really not sound. If that were the case, every war is pointless, as you’ll only create more enemies by killing people. That also assumes that people are willing to fight and die for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
        Fighting the Taliban is part of the counter terrorism. The Taliban’s goals and methods are largely interchangeable with those of Al-Qaeda and if you remember, Faisal Shazhad trained with the Pakistani Taliban. The Taliban is not just a resistance force.

        1. The idea that civilians casualties = future enemies is bullshit. If that were true we’d still be fighting Axis Jihadis. And even as America takes ridiculous measures to tamp down risk to Afghan civilians, their contempt for us only rises even as the Taliban blow them up more.

          1. The existence of Al Qaeda is not caused by opposing Al Qaeda. Christ, it’s like reading the part in Dark Knight returns where the lefty psychologists declare that Batman causes people to become villains who fight Batman through “inverse causality”.
            If civilian casualties are what matter, then one thousand anti-terrorists are being created by them for every terrorist we create.

  9. If we hadn’t had the wars, Osama would have come out in the open along time ago, dead along time ago.

  10. You are right,thanks for sharing

  11. You are right,thanks for sharing

  12. So should we have done anything in Afghanistan at all? A couple air strikes and that’s that? A couple hundred special forces with no support? An initial invasion to get rid of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban but leave after a few weeks/ a few months/ two years max?

    1. We should have gone it killed as many Taliban as possible while overthrowing their government then left. That took all of 3-4months. We then should have put a price on the head of whatever taliban leaders were still alive and tell whichever shithead ultimate came to power that we would do the same to him if he ever fucked with us.

      Ten years of idiotic nation building is not only an enormous waste of money and lives but also whatever fear the savages had of us in the aftermath of defeating the taliban.

      1. Not a bad idea. I’d add that, if the good guys were in power, we’d import their poppies and heroin stuffs.

    2. They can agree that the war on terror is costly and unproductive, but they can’t agree on what should replace it.

      For me, I think the US military is one thing that we don’t have a free market substitution for. Pacifism is a fine moral stance, but only if you have the courage to admit that death and decimation of everything you love is a possibility of not fighting back.

  13. Blowback? Aww, you misled me, I thought you were referring to what happens as a result of our invading countries under false pretenses, and the hostility naturally rising as a result of killing innocent civilians and blowing their villages to shit.

    Or the fact that OBL hated us because we turned our backs on him after funding and training him and kept our military stationed in Saudi Arabia and supported dictators who were willing to work with us in our “interests”.

    1. Damn it, ‘we’ never armed or trained Bin Laden. The Arab role in Afghanistan in the 80s was pretty much inconsequential. We funded Afghan mujahideen, through Pakistan, not OBL’s small Arab contingent. And we didn’t arm or fund the Taliban. They were students (hence the name) in Saudi funded Madrassas in Peshawar and other towns on the Afghan/Pakistan border. They won the civil war, with help from the ISI, in the vacuum that happened in the 1990s when the world stopped caring about Afghanistan.
      OBL was mad the Saudis chose the US military as its protector over his rag tag bunch of ‘Muslim Warriors’ when Saddam invaded Kuwait.

      And talking about the dictators we’ve supported in the Middle East, the American-funded ones have been a lot less brutal than the ones that we were antagonistic to eh? How’s the Arab Spring working in Syria, Libya, and Iran (yes not Arab, I know)?

      Suicide bombings of civilian office towers are expected blowback?

      1. BS. It’s part of the official record that we funded OBL.

        1. Citation?

      2. This can’t be repeated enough. Literally. The nonints have their blowback narrative and they still with it regardless of the facts.

        1. “Stick” with it HERP DERP

  14. Those who committed the act on 9/11 counted on a reaction from the US. They got exactly what they wanted…and irrational, ideological response in which the US and allies would spend money, change thier lifestlye, and rationalize hate…and make it tangable in the streets.

    In other words…whoever committed the act intended to bankrupt the west both morally, culturally and financially.

    If you look at the situation now. the terrorists who committed the act on 9/11…with the cost of a plane ticket and a box cutter (according to the official story) not only took 3000 lives that day…but undermined the lives of millions of others.

    Good luck with that Christian shari’a…it is what happens when you look for saviors in the time of fear, and give up your oaths, promises, allegances, freedoms, and privacy…for the sake of safety.

    1. Sorry, if we had “rationalized hate” made “tangible in the street”, those pieces of shit who staged the funeral in London would have been killed and their families deported immediately.
      However, THEIR hate WILL be made tangible in the streets the next time one of them blows up a bus full of people on their way into work, because that’s what they say Islam teaches them to do.

  15. And WTF “Christian Shar’ia ” are you talking about

  16. Hunting terrorists the most effective way, he says, “does not inconvenience Americans. It does not inhibit their liberties.”

    But you are assuming the point of the Governments actions was to reduce the threat Islamic militants pose to our nation. The real point, of course, is what is has always been – an excuse for well meaning people to once again grow the power of Government, believing that since they are doing so for good reasons, that power will never be used for evil.

  17. Iraq was NOT counter-terrorism, it was “You tried to kill my daddy, so I’m gonna kill you!” Iraq played no part in 9/11, and AQ only showed up there after we invaded. The war in Afghanistan would have been concluded long ago and our troops brought home if President Halliburton hadn’t sidestepped to Iraq.

    1. Sadaam gave shelter to the chemical expert in the first WTC attack 1993. The FBI suspects IIS involvement.


      I think we should have invaded Iran first admittedly.

  18. It wasnt a you killed my Daddy complex it was ” I am BETTER than you DADDY I invaded Iraq and you didnt complex” It is known that Junior wanted to invade Iraq BEFORE he was elected and plans were drawn up to do so, all that was needed was an Excuse.

  19. We may be blowing a shit ton of money on this war on terrow w/ little to no results, but to me the real irony is as pointed out by Robert Pape:
    The more treasure we send over there to root it all out, the more we throw gas on the fire.

  20. Al Queda has a powerful network of terrorism, We must defeat them to save ourselves, if we do not we will all become slaves of Allah.

    My deepest concern is Bin Laden’s DNA. If it were to get into the wrong hands it could be used to produce millions of 6′ 6″ tall Bin Ladens all roaming the Earth in an effort to terrorize us all!

    We must stand guard. They are out to get us.

    Like Sadaam Hussein, Assad, Gaddaffi, Amenijihad, Chavez and Morales just to name a few of the world’s most horrific terrorists, we must always keep our eyes open for domestic terrorists too. People moving boxes. People carrying large suitcases, people loitering in areas where there are large numbers of people, some of these people are terrorists, waiting for the signal to destroy us all.

    Al Queda’s Navy is rumoured to have an atomic weapon which it may launch from one of it’s submarines. This isn’t being reported in the press, but Donald Rumsfeld has hinted at it in the past.

    We must not let them destroy us. If you see suspicious activity call the police immediately as I do on a frequent basis. Though I am not well liked in my neighborhood, I have made sure that my neighbors are not terrorists.

    A strong Christina Faith prayer and belief in my case as a Mormon help me through these troubled times.

    God is Great! Only he’s Jesus Christ, Godammit!

    1. One minor point. I remember when I was a kid, and planes being hijacked weekly to Cuba. And even as a little snot, I was thinking, why in the hell don’t they lock the door to the pilot?

      Of course, I was too young to understand the sophisticated machinations when Kennedy, Elvis, and Marilyn were all planning (and faking their own deaths) the destruction of the twin towers to maintain military hegemony, nobody could have predicted the unanticipated rash of hijackings to Cuba.
      Funny how we don’t have Osama’s body. Anybody ever see the long form death certificate of Kennedy, Marilyn, or Elvis?

  21. ….meanwhile back at the farm, young Chinese boy (unknowingly nationalistic), hoping one day he will be able to live in the new empty cities built by his goverment…

  22. Actually, if we’d just leave Iraq and Afghanistan, stop threatening Iran, pull our troops out of Muslim lands, stop supporting Israel’s war crimes, and give up our imperialist obsession and oil addiction–we wouldn’t even have a problem of terrorism. Terrorism is a home-grown problem, made in the US of A.

    1. I’m sure Russia and China would just leave the Middle East alone then and let them be happy with their oil and corrupt governemnt?

      Why don’t we just bend over, it may be faster.

  23. Well, there’s the 2006 plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic that never happened (because of counterterrorism efforts).

    There’s the Arab Spring (influenced by the change in Iraq?)

    How about all the trouble Saddam would have been stirring up had he not been removed from power? (Now, you say, “How do you know what WOULD have happened?” And I say, “What about the author of the article – he implies that he knows what would have happened when he asserts that operations targeting Islamist terrorism did not accomplish anything. How would he know that unless he had the ability to somehow divine what would have happened or not happened in absence of such operations?”)

    Anyhow, I would agree that passive, homeland security spending is a waste of money – when it goes to things like the TSA. However, offensive, aggressive, proactive, and preemptive military and intelligence operations overseas – targeting groups who plan to do harm to the United States at home and abroad – is a wonderful, beautiful thing that I celebrate with a sunny, glee-filled happiness.

    BTW – Do you know what the last thing to go through Osama bin Laden’s head was?

    An eel.

  24. Its interesting. I would like to know more about this?I really wanted to know how this works can you please help me out??.Thanks for sharing.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.