September 11th changed the trajectory of history. The attacks began what appears to be war campaign with no end in sight. While the initial operations against Afghanistan was justified and supported by the international community, the direction of the campaigns afterward was both financially imprudent and unproductive to an extent.
As the Afghan campaign began winding down with the defeat of the Taliban, it was abruptly interrupted with a new front, Iraq. With the US’ attention diverted towards Iraq, the Taliban were defeated but not eliminated. The invasion of Iraq was partly goaded on by Osama Bin Laden. His modus operandi was to engage the US and elicit a response in the form of a long-term campaign . His desire was to bankrupt the US through the War on Terror. With the September 11th attacks costing Al Qaeda approximately half a million dollars , their bet has perhaps resulted in the largest return ever . The current approach in executing the War on Terror is leading to large costs for the US. Al Qaeda’s desire to bankrupt the US has resulted in the biggest short of history.
A short position is defined as the “sale of a borrowed security, commodity or currency with the expectation that the asset will fall in value ”. In other words, shorting is wagering that a firm or in this case a country will fall in value over time.
After 9/11, the American security paradigm transformed due to fears of another attack on the US. The Bush administration began implementing new measures to ensure security of the homeland. The drums of war also began to beat. But as the public and administration were caught up in the fog of war and revenge, the intent of the terrorist attacks were lost on many. Bin Laden was fully cognizant his ill-equipped team of terrorist could not stand a chance against the strongest military in history but his desire was that such a provocation would be the catalyst for his grand plan.
Shortly after the initiation of the Iraq War, Bin Laden released a tape outlining the group’s long term strategy, “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy .” Yet this proclamation was disregarded by many. In 2004, the national debt was at $7 trillion Dollars , today it stands at approximately $19 trillion Dollars and terrorism appears to becoming more widespread.
Although the Taliban were routed, they were not eliminated. The group found safe havens in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Instead of pursuing and eliminating the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s leadership, the United States decided to begin a new front against terrorism in Iraq. This is where the strategy began to go astray. Another conventional war added more to the national debt. These campaigns were not being paid for directly but being accrued to the debt.
Aside from the fact that the war in Iraq turned out to be ill-planned and launched under a false pretense, it was not a cheap affair. The Iraq War has cost the American taxpayers about $2 trillion Dollars but is estimated to rise to approximately $6 trillion Dollars in the next few decades . The Afghan War, which officially ended on December 31st, 2014 (but is still ragin on) has cost the American taxpayers about $1 trillion Dollars . The long term cost of that war will grow in the next few decades as well. Just the two campaigns alone can end up costing American taxpayers around $10 trillion Dollars, leave alone the additional covert wars, battles and drone strikes being carried out under the banner of the War on Terror . With the terrorist attacks of 9/11 costing half a million Dollars, the return on investment for Al Qaeda is about 20 million to 1 (without accounting for inflation). This simple analysis is not accounting for the cost and grief that is endured by the families and friends of those who died in the wars. That is a price that cannot be measured.
Was It Needed
The September 11th attacks brought a new enemy to the forefront, Muslim radicals. There is no doubt that pursuing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was the correct course. The front in Afghanistan should have been the first and perhaps last conventional engagement in the War on Terror. But the Bush administration pursued a policy of “Transformational Diplomacy “; promoting democratic reform through hard power. Not only did the Iraq War create a major financial burden, it bogged American troops, resources and attention from the actual war of eliminating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The invasion of Iraq created a power vacuum and opened the flood gates for foreign terrorists to enter the country. The extremists took root in a once secular nation, which began to fissure along sectarian lines. The combination of war, foreign extremists who fueled the embers of sectarian violence, and a newly disenfranchised segment of the population (Sunnis) spawned a new terror group; ISIS. Today, ISIS has eclipsed Al Qaeda in terms of threat as well as barbarity. The war in Iraq opened a Pandora’s Box of terrorism and allowed for all these radicals to emerge and establish a network in a place they were essentially nonexistent prior to the invasion. The Iraq War is one of the largest foreign policy mistakes ever in American history and a major factor behind the instabilities that are currently being witnessed across the region .
Aside from the initial conventional war in Afghanistan, all the other campaigns against terrorist targets should have focused more on smart power rather than purely hard power. The United States’ military is second to none but a hard power centric strategy was not ideal. A combination of both soft and hard power would have allowed the US to win hearts and minds as well as eliminate the root of terrorism. The War on Terror should have focused more on building intelligence networks and capabilities, limited engagements throughout the globe with Special Forces and/or drone strikes, as well as building better regional coalitions to defeat local menaces. This approach would have been a less costly affair than the current strategy that is employed where conventional war is used and supplemented by these other tactics. As demonstrated by the false premise behind the Iraq War, underestimation of ISIS’ threat and drone strike statistics , the US’ intelligence capabilities with regard to the War on Terror have not been optimal and in some cases have created more terrorism rather than eliminate it .
Now almost 15 years after 9/11, the world appears to be much more unstable and dangerous than on the onset of this campaign. Since then the US national debt has almost quadrupled with the debt to GDP ratio at 100% . Such levels are unsustainable to say the least. The War on Terror has caused the US to become financially insolvent, is this what Bin Laden’s grand strategy was? Is this why he prodded the US into war in Iraq, knowing two fronts will create a quagmire? The continuous enflaming of sectarian violence by Al Qaeda in Iraq appears to have spilled over into other countries of the region, which are engulfed in civil wars along sectarian lines now. Was it all worth it, can it have been done cheaper and better, no one will ever know; hindsight is 20/20.
About the author:
*Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese Foreign Policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineer and B.A. in political science. He is also author of “Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State.” Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani