By any reasonable estimate, the monetary and human costs of the U.S.-led war on terrorism has been considerable. To the political scientists at Brown University, the numbers have been astronomical. The Ivy League university’s Cost of War Project calculates that Washington will spend approximately $5.9 trillion between FY2001-FY2019, a pot of money that includes over $2 trillion in overseas contingency operations, $924 billion in homeland security spending, and $353 billion in medical and disability care for U.S. troops serving in overseas conflict zones. Add the cost of interest to borrowed money into the equation, and the American people will be paying back the debt for decades to come.
The never-ending war on terrorism, of course, has also twisted the U.S. Armed Forces into a pretzel. With the United States operating in 40 percent of the world’s countries and leading sixty-five separate security training programs from the jungles of Columbia to the jungles of Thailand, is it any wonder why defense-minded think tanks, the Pentagon leadership and the armed services committees continue to talk about a readiness crisis? Washington is deploying troops, trainers and advisers to so many places that even America’s elected representatives are frequently in the dark about how the military is being used, what it is doing and where it is operating. Indeed, when four U.S. special forces troops were ambushed and killed by a small group of Islamic State-affiliated tribal fighters during a joint U.S. raid near the Niger-Mali border, lawmakers in Washington were aghast that American soldiers were in Niger to begin with. In a televised admission about how out-of-the-loop lawmakers were, Sen. Lindsey Graham commented that “[w]e don't know exactly where we're at in the world, militarily, and what we're doing.”
Presumably, all of this expenditure of monetary and military resources should buy Americans at least a decent level of security. The high investment would be worth it if the United States was any safer from terrorism. Yet the opposite would appear to be the case. An October 2017 Charles Koch Institute/RealClearDefense survey found that a plurality of Americans (43 percent) and veterans (41 percent) believe U.S. foreign policy over the last twenty years has actually made the country less safe—a result not exactly conducive to what U.S. policymakers are looking for.
The American people aren’t crazy for feeling the way they do. There is hard data supporting their concern. Taking a comprehensive look at the terrorism problem over many decades, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Transnational Threats Project discovered that the number of Salafi-jihadist fighters has increased by 270 percent since 2001. In 2018, there were sixty-seven jihadist groups operating around the world, a 180 percent increase since 2001. The number of fighters could be as high as 280,000, the highest in forty years. And in a disturbing sense of irony, many of those fighters reside in countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) the United States has invaded and/or bombed over the last seventeen years.
All of this begs the question: is Washington’s counterterrorism strategy having the desired effect of enhancing the security of Americans? Or is the strategy simply creating more terrorists than it is killing, throwing more taxpayer money down the toilet, and further straining the U.S. military’s limited resources?
We won’t know the answer until President Donald Trump orders his administration to conduct an honest, impartial, whole-of-government appraisal of the current policy. When he does, perhaps Trump will be more likely to overrule his conventional national security advisers who continue to argue for an unconditional and timeless American military commitment in Syria and Afghanistan.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a nonpartisan foreign-policy organization focused on promoting security, stability and peace.