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9 September 2021

How the true cost of the war on terror was paid in civilian deaths

Two out of every five people killed in foreign US military interventions since 9/11 have been non-combatants.

By Ben van der Merwe

In the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York claimed 2,996 lives, foreign wars launched by the US in the name of a “war on terror” have claimed over 900,000 more.

That is the conclusion of the latest report by Brown University’s Costs of War project, which has carefully tracked the impact of America’s post-9/11 conflicts for more than a decade.

Two out of every five people killed in US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia have been civilians, according to the report. In Iraq, that proportion is as high as two-thirds (68 per cent). Coalition forces account for no more than one in 30 deaths. 

A further 38 million people have been displaced by the conflicts, including 9.2 million Iraqis – equivalent to 37 per cent of the country’s prewar population.

The figures shed new light on the context behind US President Joe Biden’s move to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

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“We didn’t need to do it,” former UK prime minister Tony Blair wrote in the New Statesman last month, criticising Biden’s decision. 

“We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even ten years ago, in circumstances in which troop numbers had declined to a minimum and no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18 months.”

The war had indeed become largely bloodless for the occupying forces in recent years, a consequence of President Obama’s retreat into the skies. For Afghans, however, the picture could not have been more different.

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War became painless for the West, but not for Afghans
Coalition fatalities includes contractors
Source: Brookings Institution/UNAMI/Costs of War Project

More than half of all civilian deaths in Afghanistan have occurred since 2016, driven by an increase in killings by anti-Taliban forces, including coalition air strikes. The number of Afghans internally displaced by the conflict doubled to three million over the same period, having already doubled between 2013 and 2016.

The billions of dollars in aid and arms that poured into the country never succeeded in establishing a functional government. The administration of former president Ashraf Ghani, re-elected in 2019 on a turnout of less than 20 per cent, was last year rated the 12th most corrupt on the planet – a modest improvement over the fourth place secured by Hamid Karzai’s regime in 2014.

The melting away of Afghan forces in the face of the Taliban’s summer offensive bore more than an eerie resemblance to the failure of Iraqi and Kurdish forces to resist the advance of Islamic State in 2014. 

In northern Iraq, Turkey continues to launch airstrikes across the country, last month killing a senior Yazidi commander in Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces.

“Iraq down the road will be another Afghanistan,” Murad Ismael, an Iraqi Yazidi activist, told the New Statesman. “Whenever you see international support removed from the state it will fall apart, because security is not held by the state.

“Every year, more groups get added and there is no subtraction. I have no question – Iraq will fail under this current security structure, and it will be a terrible failure, just like what happened to Afghanistan. It will probably be more devastating.”

[See also: Afghanistan and the limits of liberal intervention]