The True Costs of 911 and the Global War On Terror

September 7th, 2021 - by Murtaza Hussain / The Intercept & The Institute of Policy Studies

Over Two Decades, US’s Global War on Terror
Has Taken Nearly 1 Million Lives and Cost $8 Trillion

Murtaza Hussain / The Intercept & The Institute of Policy Studies

(September 4, 2021) — The US-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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US-led coalition troops and their allies.

The report also found that around 15,000 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.”

The Costs of War Project report states that its findings about deaths in the wars are conservative, leaving many still uncounted. Although nearly 1 million people can be said with confidence to have been killed since the global war on terror began, even that staggering figure is, in the words of Crawford, the project co-director, “likely a vast undercount of the true toll these wars have taken on human life.”

Economic Costs

The economic costs tallied by the Costs of War report include $2.3 trillion spent by the US government on military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, $2.1 trillion in Iraq and Syria, and $355 billion in Somalia and other regions of Africa. An additional $1.1 trillion has been spent on domestic security measures in the United States since 2001, bringing direct expenditures from the war on terror at home and abroad to an astronomical $5.8 trillion.

Even that, however, does not represent the full expenses imposed by the wars. Tens of thousands of US soldiers have returned from foreign war zones maimed and traumatized, turning many into long-term dependents of the federal government. The cost of providing disability and medical care for these veterans is likely to exceed $2.2 trillion by 2050 from its current post-9/11 total of $465 billion, bringing the total economic bill of the wars to $8 trillion.

The report compiles several different sources to give a total for how much the post-9/11 wars have cost, including appropriations for war-related expenses by the departments of Defense and State; increases to the Defense Department’s baseline operating budget; interest payments spent on borrowing; money obligated for future Veterans Affairs services; and Department of Homeland Security spending for preventing and responding to terrorist attacks.

Even this thorough accounting does not give the full picture of US expenditures: The report’s total figure of $8 trillion does not include money spent on war zone humanitarian assistance and economic development, nor does it factor in future interest payments that will be incurred on the massive deficit spending used to pay for the wars.

Many will find the astronomical financial cost of the global war on terror galling, not just because of how relatively little it has produced in return, but also because of the discrepancy between what the current price tag of the wars has run and what US officials initially claimed would be required. The war in Iraq provides one sobering example.

In September 2002, Lawrence Lindsey, then-chief economic adviser under President George W. Bush, estimated that the “upper-bound” expenses for the looming invasion and occupation would run between $100 and $200 billion. Later that year, Mitch Daniels, then-director of the Office of Management and Budget, provided an even more humble estimate of the costs, saying that war in Iraq would likely run US taxpayers between $50 and $60 billion.

In reality, the invasion and occupation of Iraq — just one of a number of conflicts fought by the US across the world since 9/11 — has wound up costing trillions of dollars while destabilizing the Middle East and breeding secondary conflicts that have continued to draw the US in at further expense and loss of life. Current events have grimly underlined how the situation has grown out of control.

The recent airport terrorist attack in Afghanistan, which killed over a dozen US service members and around 170 Afghans, was claimed by a local branch of the Islamic State, a terrorist group that did not exist at the start of the global war on terror and was birthed amid the chaos created by the US occupation of Iraq.

The conflicts appear to have no end in sight, even as the US makes plans to extricate itself from its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan.

“What have we truly accomplished in 20 years of post 9/11 wars? Millions of lives and trillions of dollars later, who has won? Who has lost, and at what price?” said Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project. “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.”

$21 Trillion.
That’s How Much Militarism Has Cost US Since 9/11

Lindsay Koshgarian / National Priorities

(September 3, 2021) — 20 years since 9/11, we are deeply overdue for a reckoning of everything the United States has done in the name of “national security.”

The War on Terror has fed a sprawling security apparatus that was designed for counterterrorism, but has also taken on immigration, crime, and drugs.

The human costs of this evolution are many — including mass incarceration, widespread surveillance, the violent repression of immigrant communities, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost to war.

Turbo-charged militarism and xenophobia has driven some of the deepest divisions in US politics and around the world, including the growing threats of white supremacy and authoritarianism. Another result is a long-standing neglect of threats like those from pandemics, the climate crisis, and economic inequality.

But of course, this militarization also has financial costs too. 

Over 20 years, the US has spent more than $21 trillion on militarization, surveillance, and repression — all in the name of security. These investments have shown us that the US has the capacity and political will to invest in our biggest priorities. 

In our staggering new report, “State of Insecurity: The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11,” we lay out where all those trillions went — and what we could fund instead.


•   Over the 20 years since 9/11, the US has spent $21 trillion on foreign and domestic militarization.
•   Of that total, $16 trillion went to the military — including at least $7.2 trillion for military contracts.
•   Another $3 trillion went to veterans’ programs, $949 billion went to Homeland Security, and $732 billion went to federal law enforcement.
•   For far less than it spent on militarization since 9/11, the US could reinvest to meet critical challenges that have been neglected for the last 20 years:

•   $4.5 trillion could fully decarbonize the US electric grid.
•   $2.3 trillion could create 5 million jobs at $15 per hour with benefits and cost-of-living adjustments for 10 years.
•   $1.7 trillion could erase student debt.
•   $200 billion could guarantee free preschool for every 3-and-4-year old for 10 years, and raise teacher pay.
•   $25 billion could provide COVID vaccines for the world.

The past year of crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic, raging floods and wildfires, to the fall of Afghanistan, have shown us that militarized investments cannot buy us safety. The next 20 years give us an opportunity to reconsider where we need to reinvest for a better future. 

Twenty years from now, we could live in a world made safer by investments in infrastructure, job creation, support for families, public health, and new energy systems — if we are willing to take a hard look at our priorities.

In solidarity,
Lindsay, Ashik, Lorah, and the NPP team at IPS

The US has been in #StateOfInsecurity for 20 years now, spending over $21 trillion on militarization since 9/11.
See our full report and findings on the #StateOfInsecurity and share widely in your networks on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram!

The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11

Lindsay Koshgarian, Ashik Siddique, and Lorah Steichen / National Priorities; Institute of Policy Studies


Twenty years after 9/11, the War on Terror has remade the US into a more militarized actor both around the world and at home. The costs of this evolution are many, in terms of surveillance and the costs to individual privacy, growing xenophobia and racism and their costs to immigrants and people of color, mass incarceration, and the cost of lives lost in war and violence, all in the name of security.

Of course, this militarization also has financial costs. Those costs have been colossal, and they point to another set of costs — the opportunity costs of investing so heavily in militarization at the expense of social and economic investments.

The devastating fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August of 2021 raises deep questions about our military investments to date. How did it go so wrong, so quickly, after so long? Which of our investments have improved life for people in the US or anywhere else, and which have led to loss of life and a more dangerous world? Most importantly, looking forward to the next 20 years, what kind of investments are most likely to protect life, reduce con ict, and raise living standards, both in the US and elsewhere?

Twenty years ago, we were promised a vision of the War on Terror that did not come to pass: that Afghanistan would not become a quagmire, or that the Iraq war would be over in “five weeks or five days or five months” and cost a mere $60 billion. As the country went to war and refocused domestic security spending on terrorism, few had any inkling of the far-reaching ramifications for the military, veterans, immigration, or domestic law enforcement.

Today, the War on Terror has fed a sprawling security apparatus that was designed for counterterrorism but has also taken on immigration, crime, and drugs. One result is a turbo-charged militarism and xenophobia in both international and domestic policy that has driven some of the deepest divisions in US politics, including the growing threats of white supremacy and authoritarianism. Another is a long-standing neglect of growing threats like those from pandemics, climate change, and economic inequality.

The financial costs continue to pile up: the Pentagon budget is higher than at the height of the Vietnam War or the Cold War, and growing, accounting for more than half of the federal discretionary budget in typical years. The Afghanistan withdrawal notwithstanding, the endless War on Terror continues with recent airstrikes in Somalia.

At the same time, the US national security establishment is now gearing up for a newly confrontational relationship with China. Many analysts have suggested ways to cut the Pentagon budget. In previous work, we’ve suggested ending our wars and significantly curtailing Pentagon activities around the world, which could decrease the annual Pentagon bud- get by $350 billion, or about half.

The massive scale of operations of the Pentagon, the legacies of 20th century wars, and the nonstop deployments in the War on Terror over 20 years necessitate a massive infra- structure to support veterans. As long as we send troops to war, these will be necessary expenses. And yet, even with income supports, health care, and other services, veterans still suffer from high rates of suicide, homelessness, and family violence, among other long-lasting consequences of serving in the country’s wars.

Domestic policy, too, has been increasingly militarized. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) formed in 2003 as a mammoth new government agency with core directives to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks, protect people and infrastructure, and respond to threats.

One of the new department’s main responsibilities was overseeing the nation’s immigration systems, on the reasoning that immigration left the US vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The formation of DHS also marked the creation of the now-infamous Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. In the years since, ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have drawn attention for terrorizing immigrant communities, suppressing protests, and tearing children from their parents.

From the beginning, the domestic War on Terror fell heavily on federal law enforcement agencies. In its most recent strategic plan, the first of four strategic goals of the Depart- ment of Justice (DoJ) was to “enhance national security and counter the threat of terrorism,” The second was to “secure the borders and enhance immigration enforcement and adjudication.” While ICE and CBP may round up and deport immigrants, it is the DoJ that prosecutes immigration cases.

At a time when awareness of police brutality and militarization has skyrocketed, militarism has reached new heights in two other long-standing wars: the war on crime and the war on drugs. US Marshals have been found to use brutal force in the pursuit of suspects in nonviolent drug crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has conducted broad-based surveillance, infiltrated political groups, and monitored entire communities based on their race, ethnicity, or religion.

Over 20 years, the US has spent more than $21 trillion on militarization, surveillance, and repression — all in the name of security. These investments have shown us that the US has the capacity and political will to invest in our biggest priorities. But the COVID-19 pandemic, the January 6 Capitol insurrection, wild res raging in the West, and even the fall of Afghanistan have shown us that these investments cannot buy us safety. The next 20 years present an opportunity to reconsider where we need to reinvest for a better future.

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