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Nick Mills

Nick Mills

Posted: January 4, 2010 11:44 AM

The Underwear Bomber

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Here's the reason that the U.S.'s Big Army strategy in Afghanistan is misguided: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. While the U.S. sends more troops to Afghanistan, ostensibly to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks, Mr. Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, apparently came close to blowing up an airliner. Did Mr. Abdulmutallab come out of the mountains of Afghanistan, or the tribal areas of Pakistan, to wage war against America? No. He studied engineering in England, and seems to have contacted extremists there on his own volition. He traveled to Yemen, which is exactly the kind of benighted backwater Afghanistan was until the attacks of September 11, 2001 put it in the crosshairs of an outraged world. (Well, most of the world was outraged.)

In Yemen Mr. Abdulmatallab hooked up with the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and apparently bought into his extremist views to the point where his own father dropped a dime on him but was in effect ho-hummed by State Department personnel. The fact that this lone man, who had been known to associate with Islamist radicals, passed through airport security carrying explosives is a crystal-clear, billboard-size message that we're going about the GWOT (oops! that term is no longer operative) the wrong way. While we blunder around faraway battlefields with humvees and tanks and rain missiles and bombs down on suspected insurgents who all too often turn out to be civilians, a real terrorist slips in the side door.

According to the Congressional Research Service, in a report prepared for members of Congress:

With enactment of the FY2009 Supplemental (H.R. 2346/P.L. 111-32) on June 24, 2009, Congress has approved a total of about $944 billion for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans' health care for the three operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks.

Those three operations are the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan, and increased security at U.S. military bases worldwide. The amount is through the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2009, and includes $684 billion for Iraq, $223 billion for Afghanistan, $28 billion for enhanced security, and $5 billion that seems to have gone missing. Only 3 percent of the total has gone for enhanced security. Only 1 percent has been allocated for medical care for veterans.

That cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is mounting rapidly towards $1 trillion. The attacks on 9/11/2001 cost the terrorists an estimated $500,000. The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security reckoned the U.S.'s monetary losses from those attacks at around $2 trillion.

Now comes Mr. Abdulmatallab with explosives in his undershorts.

X-ray imaging machines that could have detected something in Mr. Abdulmatallab's underwear besides Mr. Abdulmatallab cost less than $200,000 a pop. Let's say we install five of these imaging machines at each of a thousand airports, at all airports that are gateways to the U.S. and at major national airports. That's a million dollars per airport, times one thousand, equals $1 billion dollars. One billion! That's less than one-half of one-percent of the money we have already spent on military operations in Afghanistan, and a tiny fraction of what we've spent in Iraq. Take just the money that's gone missing, $5 billion, and you could install five machines at five thousand airports! Are there that many in the world? Take another few billion and you could ramp up intelligence operations and good police work worldwide. Take another hundred billion and fix some of the crumbling roads and bridges - and I'm not talking about Afghanistan's roads and bridges.

The American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009 gave the nation's infrastructure a D grade and estimated it would cost $2.2 trillion over five years to put it right.

But we instead spend a trillion dollars - and counting, for who knows how long - to blast away at insurgents, many of whom, until we started blasting away at them, were largely on our side. The Afghans hated the Taliban. The Afghans were thrilled, delighted, dancing-in-the-streets happy to see the backs of the Taliban. Eight years on, we've become an occupation army, driving many Afghans into the ranks of the Taliban, just as they joined the mujaheddin to fight against the Red Army. We've given al Qaeda a raison d'etre. What has prevented more attacks on the U.S.? Good intelligence gathering, good police work and, in the case of Mr. Abdulmatallab, bloody blind luck and airline passenger pluck.

Rather than making us safer, the war in Afghanistan is having the opposite effect, and it is bleeding not only our most precious resource, our troops, but leaving the country too poor to fix its roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, airports, mass transit systems, dams and levees, health care system, and schools. Our infrastructure was once the envy of the world. Watch out for that pothole.