Let’s face it, the big jump in Pentagon spending in the almost 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001 — from $432 billion in fiscal 2001 to $725 billion in fiscal 2011 — has been fueled primarily by President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, which not only generated billions in increased spending on homeland security and foreign intelligence-gathering, but also more than $1 trillion to invade and then attempt to pacify and reconstruct Afghanistan and Iraq. Some financial commitments from those actions will last years.
Those of us who covered the Cold War remember not only the costs in lives and the financial price tag of two un-won conflicts, Korea and Vietnam, but also the spending of hundreds of billions on what became a politically driven arms race. That race bought us more than 10,000 nuclear bombs and missile warheads, most of which will now cost billions to dismantle.
So, what realistically are the terrorism threats over the next 10 years? And what does the United States need to do to be “prepared to confront those threats,” as Panetta put it.
In recent weeks there have been many “expert” views about the terrorism threat, both foreign and domestic. Panetta helped start the debate when he told reporters on July 9 in Kabul, “We’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” Last week he described a “badly damaged al-Qaeda,” but said it remains a threat “to conduct attacks in this country,” as are terrorist networks spawned by bin Laden’s example.
The post-bin Laden terrorism threat was a major subject at the Aspen Institute National Security Forum two weeks ago.
Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, which serves as the primary fusion center for all foreign and domestic terrorism information, said that what’s left of core al-Qaeda in Pakistan remains a threat, along with other violent anti-American extremists in that country. He also said people in Yemen, Somalia and East Africa pose threats, though not of the 9/11 type.
But, Leiter warned, even unsuccessful attacks “have a psychological effect that would be very real.”
At another Aspen session, former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin warned that although drone strikes have “thinned out their ranks,” and al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri is not an inspirational leader, he nevertheless is “disciplined, tough, has street and Afghan war credentials and was a member of the Egyptian mafia.”
Asked how it could be known that terrorism has been defeated, McLaughlin pointed out that there have been terrorists since biblical times. But he drew an interesting Cold War parallel, saying the threat from terrorism could become like that from communism. He said there “are still communists in the world, but no one believes in communism.” As for terrorists, when they are “a nuisance” and “not a deadly threat,” the war on terrorism could be considered over.