America’s 20-year ‘war on terror’ cost $8tn and caused 900,000 deaths, report finds

Costs of War project looks at consequences of conflicts the US has waged since 9/11 attacks

The US "war on terror" has likely killed more than one million people at a cost of $8 trillion since it was launched following the September 11th, 2001, attacks on US soil, according to Brown University's Costs of War project.

The timely report – cited on August 31st by US president Joe Biden in his televised address on the withdrawal from Afghanistan – examines the costs of conflicts the US has waged in that country, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

"It's critical we properly account for the vast and varied consequences of the many US wars and counter-terror operations since 9/11, as we pause and reflect on all of the lives lost," project co-director Neta Crawford said in a release accompanying the report.

The report estimates direct deaths at 897,000 to 919,000 people, including 387,072 civilians, but she admits that these figures are “likely a vast undercount of the true toll these wars have taken on human life”. Around 7,000 US soldiers and 8,000 contractors are among the dead.


The report states: “Several times as many more have been killed as a reverberating effect of the wars – because, for example, of water loss, sewage and other infrastructural issues, and water-related disease.”


The project estimates that 38 million people have been displaced in or fled their home countries. “Total displacement could be closer to 49-60 million, which would rival World War II displacement,” the report states.

Displacement figures for the full-scale US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are highest, at 5.9 million and 9.2 million respectively.

While 26.7 million people, many of them children, are no longer displaced, this “does not erase the trauma of displacement or mean the displaced necessarily have returned to their original homes or a secure life”, says the report.

The economic cost of US warfare includes $2.3 trillion for military campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan and $2.1 trillion in Iraq and Syria, the primary theatres of war.

The wars of the past two decades “have contributed significantly to climate change [as the US military] is one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters”, the report finds.

The US invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, then host to al-Qaeda leader and mastermind of the attacks on the US Osama bin Laden, before it occupied Iraq on the basis of unproven allegations that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The report says the US conducts counter-terrorism operations in 85 countries around the world, continuing the “war on terror”.

"What have we truly accomplished in 20 years of post 9/11 wars, and at what price?" asked Cost of War co-director Stephanie Savell. "Twenty years from now, we'll still be reckoning with the high societal costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – long after US forces are gone."

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times