High cost, little gain: The US war on terror is short on dividends | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 13.05.2011
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High cost, little gain: The US war on terror is short on dividends

It has been estimated that Osama bin Laden has cost the United States some $3 trillion over the past 15 years and that the return on that investment - in terms of economic or technological advancement - has been low.

Bin Laden photo with X through it

Bin Laden may be gone, but the bill he has left still has to be paid

While many have breathed a sign of relief at the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US special forces, the economic balance sheet he leaves behind is sobering. According to several analyses, the terrorist leader cost the US at least $3 trillion (2.11 trillion euros) when the wars, heightened security and disruptions to the US economy caused by the attacks he engineered are taken into account.

That dollar figure doesn't reveal a further disheartening aspect of the war on terror, namely, that the silver lining that can result from even the most horrific conflict in the form of technological development or economic advancement is largely absent in the case of the al Qaeda leader. The US has invested a great deal in the fight against him and his movement, and the return has been very weak.

"There has been no peace dividend from bin Laden's death," Chris Yates, an independent security analyst based in the UK, told Deutsche Welle. "A few US companies got rich very quickly, but otherwise the yield has been very slim."

US soldiers in Iraq

Some reports say the Iraq war alone cost the US $3 trillion

In fact, one might concluded that bin Laden got what he was after, at least partly. In 2004, he compared the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Afghan adventure that helped break the Soviet Union.

"We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy," bin Laden said in a taped statement.

Economic and social costs

Putting a price tag on a 15-year fight against terrorism is difficult to do, and estimates vary.

The Congressional Research Service, a think tank that provides analysis for members of the US Congress, wrote in a 2010 report that Congress had approved a total of $1.086 trillion for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs and veterans' health care for three operations - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tightened security at military bases - begun since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York.

But the Washington Post newspaper reported last August, when Barack Obama declared combat operations in Iraq to be over, that the true cost of that war alone could surpass the $3 trillion mark.

Despite the elation felt by many in the US that bin Laden is dead, his legacy is sobering: two conflict regions that require 150,000 US troops and a quarter of Washington's defense budget, incursions on Americans' civil liberties with the passage of such laws as the Patriot Act, and mounting national debt that could leave future generations hobbled.

US soldiers in Afghanistan

Bin Laden said he hoped the US was bled dry in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq

Those trillions spent on war and anti-terror measures might have gone to education, research or social programs.

In addition, the war of terror seems to have had fewer technological spin-offs and upsides than past conflicts have had.

The American Civil War in the 19th century brought an end to slavery, and started a movement through standardization and closer cooperation toward a truly national US economy.

World War II, despite the resulting and unprecedented loss of life, pulled the American economy out of a deep depression and paved the way toward a long period of US growth and predominance on the world stage. Technologies developed during the fighting, such as jet engines and nuclear power, changed people's lives, often for the better. Returning soldiers brought about a baby boom that expanded the workforce and the GI Bill, which provided college or vocational education for returning veterans, greatly increased the education and skill level in the nation.

Even the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union resulted in huge leaps forward in the fields of computing and satellite technology. Indirectly, it helped bring about the Internet.

Little to show for lots of cash

But this time, things have been different, some experts say.

"We have spent a huge amount of money which has not had much effect on the strengthening of our military, and has had a very weak impact on our economy," Linda Bilmes, a Harvard University lecturer who has co-authored a book on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, told The Atlantic magazine.

Security analyst Yates echoed that remark, especially regarding aviation security, the portion of the war on terror that has likely most directly affected people lives - and not in a good way.

"The US has spent huge volumes of cash on all sorts of systems, but really, not an awful lot of real advances have been made in the past 10 years," he said.

But according to Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations, the war on terror has resulted in some changes for the better, a few of which could help bring about better security and stability in the future, although they might not be as immediately visible as past developments.

"On the positive side, we have much improved law enforcement cooperation among western powers," he told Deutsche Welle. "Secondly, we have a more thorough discussion on the relationship between western and Islamic societies."

a US drone plane

Drone planes are a technology that has benefited from the war in Afghanistan

Economic legacy

Still, the military escalation of the past 10 years has not stimulated the economy like it did in the 1940s, although a few large defense contractors did manage to fill their coffers. National security no longer drives innovation in our digital world, where Silicon Valley companies like Apple are making the cutting-edge products that change consumers' lives, not defense giants like Raytheon.

In fact, the last 10 or 15 years have created more instability and strife in the world, which has put a damper on economic benefits. Stable nations and regions make better business and trading partners.

In the end, bin Laden has left the United States with a very large bill, one that the US has chosen to pay for by borrowing money instead of raising taxes, which has implications for the country's long-term economic health.

In addition, that bill is likely going to go even higher, although perhaps at a reduced rate of growth. The United States will continue to invest heavily in anti-terror operations, since while bin Laden is dead and his organization weakened, the era of terrorism has not ended with his passing.

"We still have a lot of the same problems we did before," said Yates, and the US will continue to incur costs, although how much it is willing or even able to pay is a question the country will have to grapple with.

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge

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