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How much did bin Laden cost us?

The numbers are murky, but there’s enough information to conclude that the toll is astronomical.

For many Americans, perhaps the most tangible aspect of the post-9/11 security apparatus is found at airports.

The government took over that role from private contracts following the attack. It has spent more than $40 billion over the past decade, Robert Poole, who advises the U.S. government on the matter, told U.S. News and World Report. The time spent waiting in lines cost Americans an additional $8 billion, Poole said. Most recently, in response to the 2009 Christmas day underwear bomber, the government allocated a billion dollars to purchase full body scanners.

The post 9/11 financial bloodletting has been most severe in military spending. In 2001, just as the country was finally cashing in on the post-Cold War peace dividend and getting its fiscal house in order and, the Pentagon budget had leveled off at about $300 billion — an enormous amount of money, but less than Washington spent when it was staring down Moscow.

These days, core Defense Department spending has nearly doubled to $550 billion. That supports a sprawling military that dwarfs all others, with 760 bases in 39 countries, including Djibouti and Bahrain — not to mention secret foreign interrogation centers, outposts that are deeply controversial and hard to justify absent the need to chase Al Qaeda. 

But all that Pentagon bloat doesn’t even include the cost of the post 9/11 wars.

A recent study by the U.S. Congress’s non-partisan research arm calculated the direct costs of Iraq, Afghanistan and other post-9/11 operations at $1.28 trillion through 2011. The same study estimated that we’re on the hook for $1.8 trillion through 2021. (Regardless of the fact that there were no connections between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the U.S. would have never been able to justify pre-emptive war without images of the Twin Towers seared into American eyes, and eventually troops were forced to battle Al Qaeda in Iraq, so it’s only fair to include this as part of the terror war’s costs.)

Independent researchers suggest the war toll is far higher. For example, the Congressional Research Service estimates that the United States has spent just over $800 billion on Iraq alone through March 2011. But Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, along with Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes, have calculated that the war would cost at least $3 trillion, including money that the United States will have to spend supporting wounded veterans, for example. They put the cost of both wars at $4 trillion to $6 trillion.

The clandestine budget is even more difficult to pin down, although it is safe to say that it has more than doubled since 9/11, with the 2010 budget thought to exceed $80 billion, according to Chris Hellman, military policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

As for the actual hunt for bin Laden, that has cost more than a half trillion dollars, Al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen, told GlobalPost in an interview last month.

Even more ominous is the size of the U.S. government’s overall security outlay. This number, which is stated explicitly in the federal budget, includes a multitude of offices and bureaus relating to national defense. In U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget request, the number is $881 billion, up from $815 billion in 2010. This means that security consumes nearly one of every four dollars the federal government spends on all programs (including Social Security).

As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, if the U.S. security budget were a country, it would be the world’s 19th biggest economy, behind Australia (population 22 million) but ahead of Iran (73 million)

So, how much did bin Laden cost us? I'd put the bill somewhere around $4 trillion. But of course, many of the most profound costs incurred as a result of Al Qaeda remain hard to quantify.

Bin Laden recast America’s place in the world, forcing our diplomacy and leadership to be subservient to the war on terror. He compromised our prosperity and peace of mind, and distracted us from whatever global vision we had prior to 9/11. Above all, is the toll from the thousands of people lost in terror attacks and war, and the many more survivors and loved ones whose lives have been shattered.

On the other side of the ledger, Osama bin Laden’s operations were extraordinarily well-leveraged. Although the millionaire-Saudi-turned-terrorist led an ascetic and religious life, he understood how to engineer a high return investment. Al Qaeda spent no more than $400,000 on the 9/11 hijackings according to the 9/11 commission. By one estimate, the USS Cole bombing cost less than $10,000 to execute. As such, his strategy was frighteningly effective, and even sustainable.

Gartenstein-Ross — whose forthcoming book is called "Why Al Qaeda is Winning" — argues that the fight is far from over, given the legions of devout followers who have embraced his strategy. He cautions that America has a terrible habit of declaring “mission accomplished” prematurely, whether in Iraq or in Afghanistan (both post-9/11 and post-Cold War).

Yet with bin Laden gone, and with Al Qaeda suffering from low popularity in the Muslim world, let’s hope that it’s safe to think that the worst of the carnage is behind us, and this pricey battle we’ve been waging is nearing its finale.