The “war on terror” began on October 7, 2001 when hundreds of US Special Forces operators were airdropped into Afghanistan to hook up with the Northern Alliance, and it ended with the evacuation of thousands of Afghan asylum seekers from Taliban controlled Kabul on August 31, 20 years later.
In the years in between, nearly one million people were killed, with tens of millions injured and displaced from wars waged by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Somalia, according to a landmark report published in early September by Brown University’s Cost of War Project.
This staggering loss and disruption to human life also came with a price tag of US$8 trillion, the cost of conducting US military and diplomatic operations on foreign battlefields as well as providing medical and disability care to veterans.
“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.
The 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks should and must be the moment when the American public not only remembers the 3,000 citizens who were lost their lives on that day, but also the millions in other countries that have been killed, injured, and displaced in their name by four consecutive US Presidents.
Despite President George W. Bush’s assurance that the “war on terror” would not be a battle against “our many Muslim friends,” the undeniable reality is that two decades of US-led military operations in a half-dozen Muslim majority countries has indeed killed a shocking number of innocent Muslims.
Two decades of US-led military operations in a half-dozen Muslim majority countries has killed a shocking number of innocent Muslims.
We may never know the actual number of lives lost nor injuries. It’s highly probable the death toll exceeds the Cost of War Project’s estimates by a factor of one, two, or even three, mostly because the US military has rarely bothered to conduct a full and proper investigation into civilian casualties.
For instance, when a probe conducted by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) found undeniable evidence US warplanes carried out a strike against a house and mosque in Farah province on May 4, 2009, the US military refused to take responsibility for the casualties. Instead, it hid behind claims that the victims were “buried too quickly” to conduct a proper investigation.
Even more, last month, a US federal court sentenced Daniel Hale – a former US Air Force intelligence analyst – to nearly four years in prison for disclosing classified intelligence. His revelations indicated that nearly 90 percent of those killed by US drone strikes in Afghanistan were not the intended targets, with the vast majority of these deaths unaccounted for.
Intelligence analyst Daniel Hale’s revelations indicated that nearly 90 percent of those killed by US drone strikes in Afghanistan were not the intended targets.
“Hale’s leaks showed the public just how expansive, illegal and needlessly destructive [former US President] Obama’s secret drone warfare had become,” observes Beatrix Geaghan-Breiner for the national security magazine Responsible Statecraft.
When I interviewed a dozen survivors of US drone strikes in Somalia last year, they described to me how their loved ones, homes, livestock, and crops were obliterated in a series of US missile strikes in March 2020. “Both night and day, they [drone strikes] just kept on coming,” one person stated.
They claimed six were killed from their village, an accusation corroborated by local news reports. But while the US military admitted it had carried out strikes in their area, it refused to acknowledge civilian casualties.
“Our children and I faced so much agony and suffering after being forced to flee. And now we don’t even have a single bag, let alone a home to go to,” one survivor told me.
They are but a tiny sample of our unaccounted and unworthy victims.
In 2015, the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) estimated that far more than one million people had already been killed during US wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq alone.
“Officially ignored are casualties, injured or killed, involving enemy combatants and civilians,” observe the authors of the report. “This, of course, comes as no surprise. It is not an oversight but a deliberate omission. The US authorities have kept no known records of such deaths.”
PSR rightly points out that counting and disclosing the full extent of civilian casualties would’ve “destroyed” claims made by the US government that it was “toppling brutal dictatorships and destroying terrorist safe-havens, while improving global security and advancing human rights, and at a ‘defensible cost.’”
Also left unmeasured is the detriment inflicted upon countries the US has destabilized with invasion, occupation, and bombardment, as illustrated by the rise of the terrorist group ISIS. The violent faction is responsible for killing tens of thousands in Iraq and Syria over the course of four bloody years.
“War on terror” discourse has institutionalized Islamophobia, allowing regimes an excuse to wage war against unwanted Muslim populations.
Then there’s the way the “war on terror” discourse has institutionalized Islamophobia, allowing despotic and authoritarian regimes an excuse or pretense to wage war against pesky or unwanted Muslim populations.
The Myanmar military murdered 20,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017 on the pretext of combating “Islamic” terrorism; China justifies its Uyghur concentration camps by tying Islam to violent extremism, as does India in Kashmir, and as do Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt in their crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in various countries.
Now is the time for the United States to acknowledge the violence, chaos, and destruction it has wrought upon the Muslim world.
Tragically, however, the United States rarely engages in collective self-reflection, with 9/11 anniversaries typically dressed up in ultra-nationalist and hyper-militaristic garments and slogans. Yet, with the humiliating retaking of Afghanistan by the Taliban fresh in the minds of ordinary Americans, perhaps this year is when the country ponders the consequences of its actions.