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Unending War on Terror


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The admission by the White House that two western hostages were killed by an errant drone strike in Pakistan serves as only an ugly little footnote to what has been nearly fifteen years of undeclared war waged by Washington against a large part of the world. The New York Times notes that “…most individuals killed [by drones] are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names,” adding that “the proliferating mistakes have given drones a sinister reputation in Pakistan and Yemen and have provoked a powerful anti-American backlash in the Muslim world.”

The most recent ex-judicial killings come on the heels of a report by the highly respected Nobel prize winning Physicians for Social Responsibility that reveals that more than 1.3 million people were killed during the first ten years post 9/11 as part of the so-called “global war on terror” (GWOT) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone. The GWOT has been euphemized by the current Administration as “overseas contingency operations,” which has a nicer sound and does not appear to be so preemptive or premeditated. The relabeling also suggests that the process is both responsive and occasional, which it is not as it has been the driving component of American foreign policy since 2001 until the present day.

The report by the physicians received only limited coverage in the US media. As one might reasonably add Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen to the carnage and update the numbers on Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan for all areas where the US in engaged militarily the current total might easily exceed two million or more. The report stresses that the estimate of the dead is “conservative” based on the most reliable sources, suggesting that there are large numbers of deaths that have been reported but could not be confirmed.

To be sure not all of those millions of potential war on terror victims were killed by American bullets or bombs but their deaths are the consequence of ill-advised military interventions and operations to destabilize and replace existing governments, starting with the Taliban and continuing in the present with operations directed against Syria. Iran is the next intended target, one should reasonably presume.

American deaths represent only a tiny percentage of the overall toll, even if one includes the victims of 9/11, less than 10,000 total, which in no way should suggest that it diminishes the impact of those losses on individual families and communities. And the cost in dollars has also been devastating. Economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University has estimated that Iraq alone will cost over five trillion dollars before all the debts and legacy expenses relating to it are paid and that does not include the current re-engagement in that country by the US military.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the killing of more than a million people and the spending of trillions of dollars has not made terrorism go away. On the contrary, it now threatens to take over the Arab heartland and metastasize into Europe and the United States after some of ISIS’s own volunteer “wounded warriors” return home. That is because the policies driving the American interventions have been effectively and consistently based on a number of misconceptions, most notably that it is possible to use force to remake in one’s own image ancient cultures that possess their own values and ways of doing things.

The unrelenting expansion of Washington’s military role is consequently little more than a simplistic response to many diverse overseas developments that are poorly understood, most of which are not actually genuine threats to the United States. This is demonstrated by the White House decision to extend the US terrorism fight to the entire continent of Africa and also by the militarization of the ill-conceived campaign against Ebola, which was described as a “national security threat.”

Ironically, terrorism was clearly a dying profession, both literally and metaphorically before Washington stepped in recently to revive it. In 2011 terrorist attacks were down 12% from 2010 and 29% from 2007. Most attacks, and most victims, roughly 65%, came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Somalia, all war zones where security is poor. Engaged in conflicts that are frequently better describable as civil wars, the terrorist-designated groups bomb and execute their opponents and are on the receiving end of a corresponding government response as a consequence. Each shooting or bombing is therefore counted as a terrorist attack. Al-Qaeda, the gold-standard terrorist group, has long been in sharp decline, being upstaged by more radical groups like ISIS.

For me, the physicians’ report’s statistics revealing a pattern of worldwide carnage invites both horror and a cost/benefit analysis. Collateral damage that is killing civilians in the hundreds of thousands is hard to justify by any metric, but if a country is actually threatened with extinction there is at least an argument to be made. So the question must be asked, “Even given the current revival of terrorism in the Middle East, is the United States actually under siege by terrorism as reflected from the number of Americans who were actually victimized in 2013 (the most recent year when the the State Department has compiled the numbers)?” And “What is Washington spending and doing to deal with the threat? And why?”

Even when one includes all US passport holders or permanent residents in the tally of those directly affected, the numbers are disappointing for those who have imagined a world awash with militants all of whom are seeking Americans to kill while simultaneously planning to travel to the United States so they can blow themselves up in Times Square. In 2013, only four Americans were killed by terrorists inside the United States, all by the Tsarnaev brothers as part of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. Only twelve American citizens were kidnapped by overseas terrorists in that year (11 in Libya, Syria and Nigeria, all of which were war zones), and only 16 were killed in foreign lands (12 in Afghanistan). Not to minimize in any way the horror of becoming a terrorist victim, the numbers are only 0.3% of all terror-related kidnappings and only 0.1% of terror-related killings. Most, possibly 97%, of people killed or kidnapped worldwide are Muslims targeted by indigenous groups that are fighting to change or take control of their own governments. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has determined that the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks is comparable to the number crushed to death by falling television sets or furniture each year.

The insight that only a minuscule number of Americans actually become terrorism victims raises a question: “What does Washington do to counter the terrorist threat and how much does it cost?” The “what” part is easily answered as the national government has grown dramatically since 9/11 due to fear of terrorism, meaning that the response is to hire more people. There are currently 4.2 million full time federal employees, both military and civilian, supplemented by nearly 500,000 national guardsmen and 400,000 reservists. Defenders of the hiring argue that the number is roughly the same as in 2001, but they fail to account for the massive hiring of contractors, who are not included, Most of those new hires were directly related to the War on Terror for manning the 200 new military and CIA bases that have sprung up around the world and to serve as Fortress America’s defenders. More thanhalf of the employees in key sectors within the intelligence community and at the Defense Department are reported to be contractors, who cost roughly three times as much as staff employees.

As for the costs, the numbers are not precise as overall budgets tend to roll many items in together, but a useful way of addressing the problem is to subtract the federal budget in 2001 from the budget today in the key areas relating to defense, intelligence, and homeland security to determine what the war on terror costs.

The Federal Government is currently operating under a continuing resolution but the budget proposed by the White House is $3.9 trillion for 2015 compared with $1.863 trillion in 2001, $564 billion of which will be debt, reversing 2001’s budget surplus of $127 billion and raising the US total debt to above 100% of Gross Domestic Product. The Department of Homeland Security’s share is $38 billion for 180,000 employees, the intelligence agencies get an estimated $100 billion and employ 100,000, the FBI with 35,000 permanent employees has over $8 billion, and the Department of Defense receives $555 billion, which does not include special appropriations for the war in Afghanistan. In 2001, the Pentagon budget was $277 billion. When all the increases are added up and compared to the baseline of 2001, the war on terror currently costs the American taxpayer more than $500 billion per year directly without including legacy costs like health care for disabled veterans, of which there are tens of thousands. As there may be only 100 or so terrorists capable and willing to stage an attack on the United States directly, that works out to something like $5 billion per year per terrorist.

And that is only at the federal level. Most states now have their own departments of homeland security, and nearly all have dramatically increased both the numbers and firepower of their police forces. There is full-time security manning the entrances of nearly all federal and state and even some local and municipal office buildings. The total costs of state and local expenditures to counter the essentially overstated terrorist threat might well exceed the federal expenditures, and then there is the spending on security, often mandated by the government, in the key areas of the private sector.

So we Americans have killed directly or indirectly maybe a million people, destabilized or overthrown at least four governments, and trashed our own economy while spending something like $1 trillion per year to protect ourselves against a threat that would have been easily containable before we started engineering global solutions. And let’s not forget that we created al-Qaeda and also enabled ISIS by destroying Iraq and supporting the resistance in Syria. Doesn’t make much sense. And more and better is on the horizon. Republican candidates for presidents across the board want to increase defense (sic) spending, Senator Tom Cotton calling for a more than 50% increase to $900 billion per year. And they are itching to start another war with Iran. Cotton says that strategic air strikes will do the trick in a few days. If Paul Wolfowitz were still around he would be telling us that the enterprise would pay for itself. Some people might even believe them.

Reprinted with permission from The Unz Review.
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