US ‘war on terror’ has resulted in death toll of at least 4.5m, says report

Research focuses on ‘many kinds of deaths’ in conflicts since 9/11 attacks of 2001

The death toll from Washington’s involvement in post-September 2001 wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen could be “at least 4.5-4.6 million and counting,” according to research from the Costs of War project at the Brown University’s Watson Institute. The research focuses on the “many kinds of deaths” in “conflicts in which the US government has been engaged in the name of counterterrorism” since al-Qaeda attacked New York and Washington.

It says there have been far more fatalities, especially among children, from “the reverberating effects of war” than from fighting. These indirect deaths, estimated at 3.6-3.7 million, have resulted from “destruction of economies, public services, and the environment”, says the 39-page survey, How Death Outlives War: The Reverberating Impact of the Post-9/11 Wars on Health, authored by Brown’s project director Stephanie Savell.

“Indirect deaths grow in scale over time,” the study says, giving the example of Afghanistan. While Washington withdrew its forces in 2021, ending a two-decade war, Afghans are “suffering and dying from war-related causes at higher rates than ever”.

A second example cited is the US-backed Saudi-Emirati war on Yemen, where air strikes have intentionally targeted “agricultural areas, irrigation works, livestock, foodstuffs, water infrastructure, and fishing equipment”. International law prohibits attacks on civilian objects even if military targets are nearby.


The report reveals that 7.6 million children suffer from “wasting or acute malnutrition” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. For every person who succumbs to disease there are scores who sicken and suffer disabilities. It says that while men die in combat, women and children die from indirect effects such as loss of livelihood, food insecurity, trauma, and violence, which could be exacerbated by poverty.

Direct war violence

According to the report, during the US “war on terror” in 85 countries, at least 920,000 people have died from direct war violence, including 387,000 civilians, 7,000 US soldiers and 8,000 US contractors. Some 38 million people have been displaced by the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen as well as conflicts in Libya, Somalia and the Philippines. According to the report, these wars have contributed to climate change and erosions of civil liberties and human rights in the US and abroad.

US funding for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan helped to arm security forces while money allocated for humanitarian aid has been “lost to fraud, waste, and abuse”. A separate 2001-2022 study put the financial cost of these wars at $8 trillion.

The object of the study is to “build greater awareness of the fuller human costs of these wars and support calls for the United States and other governments to alleviate the ongoing losses and suffering of millions in current and former was zones”.

A US defence department spokesman has not responded to a request for comment on the report.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

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