x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bill for combating bin Laden is $2 trillion

Based on funding for Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as additional security spending above pre-September 11 trends, the former head of al Qa'eda cost the United States a figure equivalent to more than a fifth of US public debt.

United States Marines rush a wounded colleague to a waiting helicopter in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Up to May 2, 11,191 members of the US military have been wounded in the war in Afghanistan, including 35 per cent so severely as to preclude their return to combat.
United States Marines rush a wounded colleague to a waiting helicopter in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Up to May 2, 11,191 members of the US military have been wounded in the war in Afghanistan, including 35 per cent so severely as to preclude their return to combat.

WASHINGTON // Even in death, Osama bin Laden will be taking revenge on American taxpayers for years to come.

The US government spent $2 trillion (Dh7.3tn) combating bin Laden over the past decade, more than 20 per cent of the nation's $9.68tn public debt. That money paid for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as additional military, intelligence and homeland security spending above pre-September 11 trends, according to a Bloomberg analysis.

This year alone, taxpayers are spending more than $45 billion (Dh165bn) in interest on the money borrowed to battle al Qa'eda, the analysis shows.

The financial bleeding won't stop with bin Laden's demise. One of every four dollars in red ink the US expects to incur in the fiscal year beginning October 1 will result from $285bn in annual spending triggered by the terrorist scion of a wealthy Saudi family.

Without bin Laden, "we would have accumulated less debt, be spending less on interest and we would be on a lower spending path going forward", said Dean Baker, the co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, a research organisation in Washington.

Along with the dollars-and-cents toll, bin Laden has left behind a less quantifiable imprint on American life. Thousands of families have suffered grievous loss from the September 11 attacks and the two wars. Government buildings in Washington and around the world have grown to resemble fortified bunkers. And the line between government power and individual liberty was redrawn as agencies gained new powers to combat a novel threat.

The complete figure may be higher than the analysis. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytic, said bin Laden cost the US government and businesses $2.5tn, or $250bn each year. "I think a prudent planner would anticipate these costs continuing ad infinitum into the future," he said.

Indeed, the meter did not stop running on May 2, when bin Laden's corpse slipped into the Arabian Sea. Next year alone, the US plans to spend an additional $118bn on military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additional spending for the financial year 2012 that can be attributed to bin Laden includes an extra $14bn for homeland security, about $125bn for the Pentagon excluding the two wars, expanded intelligence spending and increased aid to Pakistan.

"There are a lot of legacy costs," said Jon Meacham, editor of Beyond Bin Laden, an instant book from Random House.

As the US celebrates the demise of the number-one figure on the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorists" list, the future spending that can be attributed to bin Laden far exceeds direct war costs. Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, said roughly $125bn of the Pentagon's $553bn fiscal 2012 budget request represents unnecessary spending justified by claims of wartime need.

"That's a tax which would not have happened without Osama bin Laden," Mr Adams, a professor at American University's School of International Service, said.

The bin Laden tax has been levied every year for the past decade. Pentagon spending - excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - between fiscal 2002 and today was $742bn higher than the Congressional Budget Office's January 2001 baseline forecast.

Amid a wartime atmosphere, military spending requests faced less scrutiny both within the Pentagon and in Congress, Mr Adams said. Programmes launched with modest initial funding often live on, their costs ballooning with the years.

A Pentagon counterterrorism training and equipment initiative known as the Section 1206 programme, which has funnelled aid to 53 countries, swelled from $100m in fiscal 2006 to $500m in the Obama administration's request for fiscal year 2012, which starts on October 1.

Under the programme, Nigeria got maritime surveillance gear to monitor traffic in the Gulf of Guinea and Lebanon obtained parts for UH-1H helicopters, which it used to quash an uprising in the Nahr al Barid refugee camp.

The US added 92,000 soldiers to its ground forces in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Each 10,000 people added to the military's ranks means an extra $1bn in annual spending, according to Mr Adams. So the ground force expansion inspired by bin Laden will impose an additional $9bn annually.

The military wasn't alone in securing expanded financial resources because of bin Laden. The budget for intelligence agencies tripled over the past 12 years, representing an average annual increase of 9.6 per cent.

While it is difficult to determine how much of the increase can be directly linked to bin Laden, the amount is undoubtedly sizeable. In October 2010, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said the intelligence budget for fiscal 2009 was $80.1bn, including $27bn for military intelligence. Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution defence expert, estimated that $25bn to $30bn of annual intelligence spending can be laid at bin Laden's feet.

"A large portion of that cost growth is from September 11," said Mr O'Hanlon, a former national security analyst with the congressional budget office.

The government's finances also groan beneath the weight of the department of homeland security, the 216,000- employee bureaucracy created to protect Americans from additional terrorist attacks. Over the past nine years, the department spent about $123bn more than if the 22 component agencies' pre-September 11 spending trends had continued, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

That is an extra $14bn annually US taxpayers can attribute to bin Laden - or 24 per cent of the $57 billion the department is seeking for the 2012 financial year.

Bin Laden's imprint on American society, however, extends beyond finances. Up to May 2, 11,191 members of the US military have been wounded in the war in Afghanistan, including 35 per cent so severely as to preclude their return to combat.