Those of us who saw the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, still recall with vivid clarity the sights, sounds and emotions of that awful morning. It has never gone away. Perhaps this is so as well for the tens of millions who saw it on TV.
But it is time to put it, and what it led to, behind us. By “led to,” I’m referring to the war that the United States has waged in Afghanistan since Oct. 7, 2001.
Consider this. The terrorists spent at most $500,000 to attack New York and Washington. Half-a-million dollars. In contrast, the U.S government decided that the best way to defend itself post-9/11 was to reorganize the federal government, including creating a sprawling Cabinet-level agency, the Department of Homeland Security. Its budget this year is $49.8 billion.
High cost of war
But the hundreds of billions of dollars DHS has cost over the years pales in comparison to the actual cost of the Afghan war.
- $1.5 trillion for the actual war
- $500 billion in interest (the war has been fought with borrowed money)
- $87 billion to train Afghan military and police forces
- $30 billion for reconstruction programs
- $24 billion for economic development
- $10 billion on counternarcotics
That’s $2.15 trillion. But I haven’t added a huge future expenditure: perhaps $1 trillion more, which analysts say will be needed to take care of our veterans through 2059. About half of that is for vets who served in Afghanistan, and the rest Iraq and elsewhere. This is difficult to quantify because many veterans — to whom we owe gratitude and respect — served in several combat zones during multiple deployments over many years.
So much blood, treasure and time gone, all because of 19 terrorists, half-a-million dollars and a few hours two decades ago.
And for all that, this question: Do you feel safer?
For most of our history, the buffer of two vast oceans to our east and west and two benign neighbors to our north and south kept us safe. But nuclear-tipped missiles rendered that meaningless decades ago, and cyber attacks, which occur daily, are a clear and present danger and render borders irrelevant.
What keeps U.S. security planners up at night in 2021? Not terrorists hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings — that was our last war. Now it’s everything from hypersonic missiles to a “cyber-9/11,” a crippling attack against our electric grid, financial, communication networks and more, all of which are vulnerable to various degrees.
Meantime, Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency (part of the Department of Defense), told Space News that cyber attacks on satellites and their supply chains — critical to our economy and national security — is a significant worry.
“It doesn’t matter if I have one satellite or if I have 1,000 satellites, those type of attacks may have the ability to take them all out,” he warned.
But perhaps the biggest threat to our security today is right under our nose, one that we’ve become rather familiar with of late: Homegrown domestic terrorism.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, hand-picked for the job by then-President Trump and kept on by President Biden, told Congress last month that domestic terrorism was “metastasizing across the country.”
Such threats span the ideological spectrum. The New York Times reported in February that the FBI opened some 400 domestic terrorism investigations last spring and summer alone, ranging from the far-left antifascist movement known as antifa, to far-right white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others, some of whom later played a role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Meantime, the Pentagon also considers climate change a threat. Here at home, rising waters, drought and wildfires pose greater dangers to U.S. bases and capabilities, defense planners say, and abroad they raise the risk of destabilizing events like famine, mass migration, civil war and regional conflicts over resources like food and water.
“The United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient,” John F. Kennedy warned in November 1961.
The world is smaller and far more complex today. We must acknowledge that we don’t have the power or resources to be everywhere all the time. We face bigger and multiple more threats today than Afghanistan. To govern is to choose. The decision to leave, while not easy, is the right one.