On Sept. 14, 2001, Congress wrote what would prove to be one of the largest blank checks in the country’s history. The Authorization for Use of Military Force against terrorists gave President George W. Bush authority to attack the Taliban, the Sunni fundamentalist force then dominating Afghanistan that refused to turn over the mastermind of the attacks perpetrated three days earlier, Osama bin Laden.
In the House of Representatives and the Senate combined, there was only one vote in opposition: Barbara Lee, a Democratic representative from California, who warned of another Vietnam. “We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target,” she said. “We cannot repeat past mistakes.”
Days later, Mr. Bush told a joint session of Congress just how broadly he planned to use his new war powers. “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Mr. Bush declared. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
More than 17 years later, the United States military is engaged in counterterrorism missions in 80 nations on six continents. The price tag, which includes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and increased spending on veterans’ care, will reach $5.9 trillion by the end of fiscal year 2019, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University. Since nearly all of that money has been borrowed, the total cost with interest will be substantially higher.
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