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It’s Time to Rethink Counterterrorism Spending

After Sept. 11, the U.S. overspent to keep terror at bay. With a weakened enemy and slumping economy, it’s time to get smarter

Judged solely on outcomes, the decade-long war on terrorism has been a rousing success. Al Qaeda has been chased out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Its leader and most of his lieutenants are either captured or dead. The organization is on the brink of “strategic defeat,” according to both the U.S. Defense Secretary and the director of the CIA. Across the Middle East, support for jihadist violence has plummeted. Since Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda has not mounted one successful strike on American territory—and has failed even to pull off an attack against U.S. targets abroad comparable to the African embassy bombings in 1998 or the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., writes that the 10 years since Sept. 11 have been “the longest period without a major terrorist attack on the United States since the 1960s.”

That success, however, has not come cheaply. The conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest military engagement in American history. More than 6,000 service members have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and upwards of 40,000 seriously wounded. The Congressional Research Service estimates the price tag of the two wars to be at least $1.3 trillion and counting, not including the medical and disability costs associated with treating war veterans, the hit to the global economy caused by the 10-year spike in oil prices, or the rise in military, intelligence, and homeland security spending. Due in part to these second-order, security-related costs, the federal budget has gone from an annual surplus of $128 billion in 2001 to a deficit of more than $1 trillion. The national debt has nearly doubled in the same period, with the amount owed by the U.S. to China growing more than tenfold. And U.S. economic growth in the decade since Sept. 11 has been the slowest since the 1930s.