High Costs of US War on Terror Have Not Led to Basic Corrective Actions

afghanistan drone
A man grieves during a mass funeral for members of a family was killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

The terrible 9/11 attacks led the USA military and foreign policy establishment to launch a prolonged series of military actions in many countries with the stated aim of curbing terrorism and terror. These have been collectively called the war on terror or terrorism, the global war on terror and the 9/11 wars. Although there have been criticisms and debates linked to these names, for practical purposes the short description of war on terror has been frequently used to collectively describe the US military actions mainly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, the Philippines  and elsewhere.

This war on terror has proved extremely costly in terms of loss of human life and displacement of people. According to the Costs of War data base prepared by the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University, USA ( briefly referred to as Brown University estimates which were also cited, although selectively, by President Biden in one of his national addresses), these costs from 2001 to now have been unacceptably high.

This data base tells us that a total of 906,000 to 937,000 human lives have been lost in this war on terror in terms of direct war deaths ( people who died from bombs and bullets or directly in conflicts). This figure does not include the deaths caused by infrastructure collapse of water, sewage and health as a result of war, or diseases related to war impacts. However the Brown University base clearly says that “several times as many more have been killed as a reverberating effect of war.”

Regarding the direct war deaths 176,000 took place in Afghanistan, 280,771 to 315,190 in Iraq, 268,816 in the context of Syria/ISIS, 112,000 in Yemen and 67,000 in Pakistan, and the remaining elsewhere.

What is more, 38 million people have been displaced by the post 9/11 wars—5.9 million in Afghanistan, 3.7 million in Pakistan, 4.6 million in Yemen, 4.3 million in Somalia, 1.8 million in the Philippines, 9.2 million in Iraq, 1.2 million in Libya and 7.1 million in Syria.

This estimate has been presented as a conservative estimate and according to this data base, a more realistic number would be somewhere between 49 to 60 million, which brings it closer to the displacement caused by World War II.

What did these interventions achieve? In the case of Afghanistan, the people who faced food insecurity were 62% of the population in 2001 (before the intervention), in 2022 this number had increased to 92%. The percentage of children under 5 suffering from malnutrition increased in a big way. The percentage of people of Afghanistan living in poverty increased from 80% to 97%. Women faced heavy restrictions in 2001, they also faced heavy restrictions in 2022. Since 2001 the US development aid to Afghanistan amounted to $ 36 billion while the US spending on top 5 military contractors amounted to $2.1 trillion or $ 2100 billion.

These statistics collected from many sources by the Brown University data base tell a very sad story of a highly misguided war on terror hijacked to an entirely wrong path. The 9/11 attacks had created sincere and strong sympathy for the USA, on top of an already felt need for strong action against terrorism by many world leaders. Statements of sympathy, cooperation and help were pouring in without asking from several world leaders, including from Russia. This was the right time for mobilizing strong worldwide action against all terrorisms in an unbiased way, based in the UN. Almost everyone would have cooperated and nobody would have been burdened too much by costs by pooling resources. But the hawkish policy makers in the USA concentrated instead on organizing the entire thing around their almost pre-set aggressive agenda, leading to such terrible results.

The financial costs alone for the USA have been 8 trillion or 8000 billion dollars, amounting to about a billion (or 1000 million) dollars a day over a 22 year period, or 42 million dollars an hour, or 700,000 dollars per minute, or 12000 dollars per second.

Compare this with the estimates made by the World Food Program (WFP) of 40 billion dollars a year needed to eliminate world hunger. In 2021 the WFP which is the world’s biggest feeding program had wanted to raise 15 billion dollars but could raise only 10, although it still managed to feed about 100 million people in 120 countries, more or less, according to its data. Compare this with the 365 billion dollars a year spent on a war the most defining feature of which has been the killing of innocent people. All the rich countries together have not been able yet to together raise the promised 100 billion dollars a year grant needed for helping developing and poor countries to fight climate change, but just one of these rich countries could easily find 365 billion dollars a year for a terrible war with only destruction to show. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, USA, 20 billion dollars a year are needed to end homelessness in the USA. Raise this to 36 billion, and it would still be only 10% of what has been spent annually on this futile war. When, in September 2022, President Biden announced a plan to end hunger in the USA, all that his administration could commit in public and private funding was 8 billion dollars, about 2 per cent of the annual spending on this senseless, destructive war.

The USA is supposed to have some of the most capable intellectuals, some of the best universities, its democratic system is supposed to have checks and balances, how then it could continue such a futile and destructive agenda for such a long time? What is going so seriously wrong here? What is the remedial action needed? Answers to these questions have to be sought and only then we can say that the very costly lessons of the war on terror have been learnt.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.

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