What could you do with $18,500? Maybe you’d pay off some debt or sock it away in long-term savings. Maybe you’d use it as a down payment. Or pay the rent in a better neighborhood. Maybe you’d give it to your ailing parents for their medical care. Anyway, I’m sure you’d be able to put it to good use.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I saw coverage of a classified Pentagon report, disclosed on Discord and reported by The Washington Post, that Afghanistan is once again a staging ground for terrorism that targets the West. Not al Qaeda this time, but ISIS. While the United States views the threat to the United States from al Qaeda as “minimal,” ISIS—al Qaeda’s ideological and organizational nemesis—operates not only in Afghanistan, but across wide swaths of North Africa and the Middle East.
And so, in light of all this, I’ve been thinking about the $2.3 trillion the United States spent on the war in Afghanistan through 2022. That’s the total calculated by the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute at Brown University. It’s $2,300,000,000,000.00, in case you’re counting digits. Enough to send each of the 124 million households in the United States a check for a little more than $18,500.
I don’t want to overstate this. Though it’s hard to describe the war in Afghanistan as anything other than a failure, it’s not fair to say the United States got nothing for its $2.3 trillion. As other have pointed out, the Post buried deep in the article the fact that the (known) ISIS plots originating in Afghanistan and targeting the West were detected and thwarted by intelligence services.
Moreover, unlike al Qaeda, ISIS has at least so far been more focused on the “near enemy”—what it calls apostate Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa—than on the “far enemy”—what it calls the West, and especially the United States, which makes it a less serious domestic threat than was al Qaeda.
Indeed, bin Laden’s fatwa against the United States and his determination to attack the far enemy differentiated and isolated al Qaeda from the majority of the mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan In short, ISIS is not the same as al Qaeda (though most Americans do not pay close attention to the difference).
Still, inasmuch as: ISIS is the child of the West’s war on al Qaeda; the number of terror attacks and victims is higher by several orders of magnitude today than it was in 2001; we have thoroughly destabilized much of the region we hoped to win over; Afghanistan is once again an active stronghold for terror; the war on terror has metastasized into the most invasive surveillance state the world has ever seen; and we seem no closer to winning that war than we were two decades ago, it’s not too early—though it may be too late—to ask what else we could’ve done with all that money.
The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that 27 million people in the United States, including one of every seven households below the poverty line, live within half a mile of a brownfield site. Brownfields are typically former industrial properties rendered unusable by the presence of toxic pollutants. The EPA estimates there are 450,000 brownfields in the U.S. Fifty-eight million people live within a mile of a site, and 143 million, including more than half of all households below the poverty line, live within three miles.
Unsurprisingly, research has consistently shown that people living in close proximity to a brownfield site are more likely to be and to get sick. Remediating a brownfield leads to lower health care costs, improved environmental benefits, and increased property values. One study found that fixing a brownfield raised nearby housing values between 5 and 32%. And when remediated brownfields are converted to housing, the result can lower rents and help ease the affordable housing crisis.
Even though remediation pays for itself many times over, the biggest obstacle to remediation is the upfront cost. According to the EPA, the average cost to fix a brownfield is $602,000. With 450,000 brownfields in the U.S., that’s a total cost of $270 billion. That’s a lot of money. Or, it’s a little over 11% of the cost of the failed war in Afghanistan.
I suppose we’d all agree that people in the United States ought to have access to clean drinking water. According to a 2021 report by the Brookings Institution, as of 2016, roughly 7% of U.S. households that used community water systems relied on lead service lines. On top of that, the Biden administration figures that lead pipes and service lines bring water to around 400,000 schools and childcare facilities.
Yet no amount of lead in drinking water is “safe.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, prolonged exposure to lead can damage the brain, reduce fertility, increase blood pressure, and raise the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, and some forms of cancer. It’s particularly bad for children and can lower IQ, retard language development, and increase aggression. Early exposure to high levels of lead is also associated with significant increases in violent crime.
But it costs money to get rid of all our lead pipes and service lines. How much money? The EPA estimates an average cost of $4,700 to replace a contaminated service line. There might be as many as 10 million contaminated lines still in use. That’s $47 billion. Wow, a lot of money. A little over 2% of the amount we have spent on the war in Afghanistan.
More than four in ten bridges in this country are over 50 years old, more than 45,000 are “structurally deficient,” and more than 230,000, spread across all fifty states, need repair and preservation work. The Federal Highway Administration estimates we need to spend an additional $8 billion every year on bridge construction and repair. Figuring 20 years of misspent money on the war on terror, that’s $160 billion—more than enough to fix the problem.
We could go on, of course. There are 1,300 hazardous waste Superfund sites in the United States, and the budget to manage them has been essentially flat for the last decade. A water main breaks every two minutes in this country, and we lose about 6 billion gallons of treated water every day. We spend about 300 times more on military defense than health defense, yet another pandemic is all but certain.
And of course, all of you have probably already done the mental adjustments I have saved for last. The cost of the war on terror is not simply what we have spent so far in Afghanistan. It is what we have already committed to spend on veterans’ future medical obligations and disability, which brings the total for the war in Afghanistan to $3.4 trillion.
And it is what we have spent and will spend on the wars and related military operations in Iraq and Syria, which adds another $3.1 trillion. And it is what we have spent on military operations throughout the rest of the globe, which adds another $355 billion. And it is what we have spent on homeland security, which adds another $1.1 trillion. Added up, the total direct financial cost of the war on terror is about $8 trillion.
And this doesn’t include the cost of humanitarian aid or economic development. Or the future cost of interest payments to pay for the borrowing we have done to fund our post-9/11 wars.
Yet when we are tallying up the cost of the war, maybe $8 trillion is the least important figure. Maybe, now that Afghanistan is once again a staging ground for terror, we should reflect on another number: 937,000. That’s the estimated number of people killed. It includes about 390,000 civilians.
More than 100 times the number killed in the United States on September 11, 2001.