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Commentary: More of our military dollars should go to people, not equipment

The United States spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan. This comes down to $10 million an hour, $240 million per day for 365 days over 20 years. Half of this money went to U.S. civilian defense contractors to provide equipment to an Afghan military force that disintegrated less than 60 days after American troops began pulling out of the region.

Was that a good use of our money?

We also spent billions on U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Last week, Pentagon officials announced that they made a mistake when they ordered a drone strike that killed 10 civilians in a car as the military was withdrawing from the country. Six different surveillance drones reportedly followed the vehicle for more than eight hours before the missiles were fired, causing the car to explode.

We can assume the military took its time to confirm that the folks in the car were actually “bad guys,” the term used for suspected terrorists. They were wrong. The vehicle was filled with 10 people, including seven small people who should have easily been identified as children. (Please, I don’t want to hear the excuse, “We just don’t have the technology to distinguish adults from children.”)

To call this very bad intelligence analysis would be an understatement. To make matters worse, the three adults were not even bad guys, but rather men loading and carrying containers filled with water; one of them was employed by a nonprofit organization. Analysts mistakenly thought these containers were filled with explosives.

The United States spends almost $800 billion a year for the defense of our country. This is more money than the next 15 countries combined.

In contrast, Israel, which ranks 14th or 15th globally, spends about $20 billion a year.

To understand its different approach to warfare, consider what happened after then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear agreement. Israel felt vulnerable. It immediately began targeting the top Iranian scientist responsible for Iran’s nuclear program.

Over several weeks, if not months, Israeli agents devised a plot to assassinate this scientist. It involved a robot (in a pickup truck, driven by a person) taking its instructions from a satellite in space after a second robot used facial recognition software to identify the man and confirm that no one else (including the scientist’s family) was in the car, and that it was not a similar vehicle driven by someone else.

The result was the assassination of the scientist on an empty road, via machine gun; no one else was harmed. After the action, both robots were destroyed. Smuggling in parts of these robots, which weighed almost a ton, was an unimaginably difficult feat, especially since they were brought into a country that has declared itself an enemy to Israel.

Removing ourselves from Afghanistan should have reduced our military spending. Instead, this past week, some Democrats joined Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee in seeking to add another $25 billion to the 2022 defense budget. The vote came after the defense industry spent $57 million lobbying members of Congress in the first half of 2021.

Instead of buying equipment, we should spend this money on those serving in the military. This would include better training, especially for those who have to make decisions involving the harm or safety of human lives. For example, we should invest in the establishment and strengthening of cognition. Clearly, the individuals responsible for attacking that car lacked the knowledge, comprehension and judgment to make the proper decision. These are problems that won’t be solved by buying more equipment.

Jan Goldman is professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at The Citadel and is the author of a forthcoming book on ethics and espionage.

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