THE U.S.-LED global war on terror has killed nearly 1 million people globally and cost more than $8 trillion since it began two decades ago. These staggering figures come from a landmark report issued Wednesday by Brown University’s Costs of War Project, an ongoing research effort to document the economic and human impact of post-9/11 military operations.
The report–which looks at the tolls of wars waged in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and other regions where the U.S. is militarily engaged–is the latest in a series published by the Costs of War Project and provides the most extensive public accounting to date of the consequences of open-ended U.S. conflicts in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, referred to today as the “forever wars.”
“It’s critical we properly account for the vast and varied consequences of the many U.S. wars and counterterror operations since 9/11, as we pause and reflect on all of the lives lost,” said the project’s co-director, Neta Crawford, in a press release accompanying the report.
Our accounting goes beyond the Pentagon’s numbers because the costs of the reaction to 9/11 have rippled through the entire budget.
The staggering economic costs of the war on terror pale in comparison to the direct human impact, measured in people killed, wounded, and driven from their homes. The Costs of War Project’s latest estimates hold that 897,000 to 929,000 people have been killed during the wars. Of those killed, 387,000 are categorized as civilians, 207,000 as members of national military and police forces, and a further 301,000 as opposition fighters killed by U.S.-led coalition troops and their allies. The report also found that around 15,000 U.S. military service members and contractors have been killed in the wars, along with a similar number of allied Western troops deployed to the conflicts and several hundred journalists and humanitarian aid workers.
The question of how many people have lost their lives in the post-9/11 conflicts has been the subject of ongoing debate, though the numbers in all cases have been extraordinarily high. Previous Costs of War studies have put death toll figures in the hundreds of thousands, an estimate tallying those directly killed by violence. According to a 2015 estimate from the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility, well over 1 million have been killed both indirectly and directly in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. The difficulty of calculating death tolls is made harder by the U.S. military’s own refusal to keep track of the number of people killed in its operations, as well as the remoteness of the regions where many of the conflicts take place.
Like its previous studies, the death toll calculated by the Costs of War Project focuses only on deaths directly caused by violence during the global war on terror and does not include “indirect deaths, namely those caused by loss of access to food, water, and/or infrastructure, war-related disease” that have resulted from the conflicts. The report’s footnotes also state that “some of the people classified as opposition fighters may actually have been civilians as well, since there are political incentives to classify the dead as militants rather than civilians”–a caveat that dovetails with the U.S. government’s own confessed practice of labeling any “military-age males” killed in its operations as combatants unless proved otherwise.
Such practices have continued across multiple administrations. A recent investigation from the military-focused news site Connecting Vets included leaked video and accounts from the 2019 drone campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan. The story included testimony from former drone operators who said that they had been given the green light to kill anyone seen holding a walkie-talkie or wearing a tactical vest in the province, which had poor security and lacked reliable cell phone service. For some U.S. officials licensed to authorize drone strikes, frustrated by their inability to achieve strategic victory or even favorable negotiating terms with the Taliban, the “metric for success was racking up a body count.”