Cost of pursuing bin Laden? Half a trillion and climbing

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An aerial view of the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces.

CIA/AP

In its 10-year search-and-destroy mission against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, the United States has spent more than $450 billion primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That does not count the price tag of the war in Iraq, where Americans footed the bill for another $800 billion since the 2003 invasion.

Nor does it include the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on improving homeland security at airports, ports and other facilities. Nor mammoth increases in the yearly defense and intelligence budgets. Nor the massive projected costs of two wars that have already left some 50,000 American troops killed or wounded.

While symbolic, the death of bin Laden is likely to do little to slow down the costs of war. “If the overall war FY2012 request of $132 billion is enacted,” concludes the Congressional Research Service, “war funding since the 9/11 attacks would reach $1.415 trillion.”

Said defense analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, “The Defense Department budget is twice what it was 10 years ago…due to the national panic attack after 9/11. All that increase is attributable to Osama bin Laden.”

Despite the cost, the United States had little choice but to hunt down bin Laden. “I don't think a prosecutor can decline to pursue a guilty verdict against a murderer because the murderer is too hard to catch,” said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. “The fact that bin Laden continued to operate a terrorist network continuing to endanger American citizens made the necessity of tracking him down all the more compelling.” 

Since al-Qaida terrorists struck New York City and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, the global war on terror has grown steadily from its initial tight focus on catching bin Laden, toppling the Taliban, and routing al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have requested, and Congress has appropriated, almost $1.3 trillion for emergency military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; foreign aid and reconstruction projects; and the costs of wounded and returning veterans since the 9/11 attacks, according to a March 29 report by the CRS.

Of that amount, CRS estimates that $806 billion was spent on Iraq, $444 billion on Afghanistan and other counter-terror operations, and $34 billion on enhanced military security and other programs.

Another CRS report, from January of this year, estimates that almost $20 billion was dedicated to Pakistan between 2002 and 2010, with mixed results at best.

“The outcomes of US policies toward Pakistan since 9/11, while not devoid of meaningful successes, have seen a failure to neutralize anti-Western militants and reduce religious extremism in that country, and a failure to contribute sufficiently to stabilizing Afghanistan,” the report concluded. “Pakistan is the setting for multiple armed Islamist insurgencies, some of which span the border with Afghanistan and contribute to the destabilization of that country. Al-Qaida forces and their allies remain active on Pakistani territory.”

CRS’s criticism is echoed in a GAO report from March warning that the U.S. has opened itself up to mismanagement of funds, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “The United States has placed an increased focus on providing funding directly to the Afghan government and Pakistani organizations,” the report found. “This course of action involves considerable risk given the limited capacity of some prospective recipients… to manage and implement U.S.-funded programs.”

For American taxpayers, the future holds little relief. Over the next 10 years, an additional $496 billion may be required to fund war-related costs for the Pentagon, State Department and veteran’s benefits, the CRS said.

The anticipated troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan won’t save as much as much money as might be expected, the report warned, as U.S. civilian assistance replaces military involvement. And there are several wild cards in U.S. plans, like the pace of training Afghan security forces, while dealing with shortages of trainers and extensive corruption. The White House and the Pentagon do not have a timeline for the transition.

As the war in Iraq draws to a close, the costs of war in Afghanistan have risen. The Afghan war jumped from $19 billion in 2006 to $119 billion in 2011. The per-troop costs are higher in Afghanistan due to that country’s more difficult terrain, and lack of infrastructure.

The CRS report on war-on-terror costs focused on the “emergency” supplementary appropriation bills that have funded combat overseas, and did not address the overall growth in the U.S. intelligence and military budgets.

The emergency appropriations bills, for example, did not include the costs of the tanks, ships and aircraft that were already on hand, or being built in ongoing procurement programs.

“All those aircraft carriers that went over there? The aircraft? All that was already paid for,” said Pike.

Another source of costs comes from the Department of Homeland Security , which has received at least $420 billion in funding since its creation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Although the budget may seem unlimited, the military has found itself fighting hard for funding this year in front of a Congress and President looking to slash costs. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), home to groups like the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and other special commandos, has been named in various reports as having played a key role in the death of bin Laden.

Although not officially recognized by DOD, it is generally accepted that JSOC’s primary mission is the identification and destruction of terrorist cells around the globe. In March of this year the unit’s billion-dollar budget faced serious cuts, but in the end JSOC — which has tripled in size since the 9/11 attacks — managed to avoid any serious cuts.

Experts also warn that the true costs of the “war on terror” may never be known, thanks to the secrecy surrounding the budgets of the Central Intelligence Agency, which handles much of the intelligence gathering in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Without knowing the details of the CIA’s budget, “we don’t know how much of it was largely or entirely spent in support of activities in Afghanistan,” according to Lilly. “It would take a great deal of accounting expertise and effort to arrive at such a number even if the information needed were not classified.”

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, agreed that nailing down a number is next to impossible. “There is just too little information about CIA spending, and possibly some misdirection, to go on.”

Reporting fellow Laurel Adams contributed to this report.

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