'War on Terror' Cost U.S. $21 Trillion, Its Conflicts Killed Nearly One Million, Reports Show

A visibly frustrated President Joe Biden slammed the estimated $2 trillion price tag of the U.S. war in Afghanistan on Tuesday during his first remarks since the end of the two-decade military mission there.

Now, two new reports illustrate an even higher cost, both to the United States and the world.

Released by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies' National Priorities Project early Thursday, the report titled "State of Insecurity: The Cost of Militarization since 9/11" found that "the U.S. has spent $21 trillion on foreign and domestic militarization" since the fateful 2001 attacks that spawned the Afghanistan intervention, marking a new era of U.S.-led conflict across the globe.

More than three-quarters of the $21 trillion, which is roughly the size of the entire U.S. GDP, went to military spending, including the Pentagon, retirement benefits, nuclear programs, foreign defense aid and intelligence. Together, these amounted to $16 trillion.

Other key expenditures included $3 trillion for veterans' programs, $949 billion for Homeland Security and $732 billion for federal law enforcement.

The report also addressed alternative allocations for these funds, listing major issues plaguing the nation, and the estimated cost of addressing them. Among the highlights:

- "$4.5 trillion could fully decarbonize the U.S. electric grid"
- "$2.3 trillion could create 5 million $15 per hour jobs with benefits and cost-of-living adjustments for 10 years"
- "$1.7 trillion could erase student debt"
- "$449 billion could continue the extended Child Tax Credit for another 10 years"
- "$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 population of low-income countries."

Lindsay Koshgarian, program director at the National Priorities Project, said the U.S. priorities have been misplaced.

"Our so-called security money isn't where the real threats are," Koshgarian told Newsweek. "We're facing so many really dire threats — the pandemic has taken more than 600,000 U.S. lives, the opioid epidemic takes almost 50,000 lives a year, people are losing their homes to fires and floods, and millions of us stand at risk of becoming homeless when pandemic eviction moratoriums end. We can have all the weapons and deployments and punitive immigration crackdowns money can buy, but none of it can save us from those things."

This, she argued, required reflection over the results of two decades of conflict.

"We need to look at what our militarism actually does, not just what we want it to do," Koshgarian said. "There's a very significant portion of our military spending that arguably makes the world more dangerous for us and our allies. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn't keep us or our allies safe. Our military interventions often hurt local people far more than they've helped. Nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians have died in our war. Besides going against our stated values, that ends up bolstering the case of whoever we're fighting."

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U.S. Marines from the 3/5 Lima Company celebrate as they walk along a destroyed high street after taking the bridge in the restive city of Fallujah, Iraq on November 14, 2004. The city hosted some of the deadliest, most infamous battles between U.S.-led forces and Islamist insurgents. It would fall again about a decade later under the control of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which was ultimately ousted by U.S. and Iran-backed Iraqi military and paramilitary forces. PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Part of this was touched upon in Biden's announcement Tuesday of not only the end to the war in Afghanistan, but also what the president said was "an era of major military operations to remake other countries."

But there's another stunning figure, the costs of which can never be reimbursed.

The Costs of War Project of Brown University's Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs released on Wednesday its latest tally of deaths directly caused by the many post 9/11 conflicts spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other affected parts of the globe.

The final fatality toll, which includes soldiers, rebels, civilians, aid workers, journalists and others caught in the crossfire, rounded to the nearest 1,000, numbered between 897,000 and 929,000 people.

Notably, the true figure of those who died as a result of these wars is far higher.

"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 war-related disease," the report stated.

Costs of War Project co-director Stephanie Savell said it was vital to not only count these casualties, but process the true impact they've had around the world.

"So often the language we in the U.S. use to talk about the post 9/11 wars is abstract and dehumanizing," Savell told Newsweek. "We talk about Afghanistan as a 'graveyard of empires,' which it is, but we fail to recognize that it is also, more importantly, a graveyard of people — 176,000 Afghans have died since the US invasion in 2001. Every one of these people has a circle of loved ones who mourn them."

And often, she highlights, it's the most vulnerable who suffer.

"Twenty years of war has also had so many other human costs for people in the warzones, who are the ones who truly bear the brunt of war," she said. "Afghan children who get their limbs blown off by unexploded ordnance when they go to collect firewood, pregnant women who suffer miscarriages and birth defects because of war's environmental contaminants, so many people who no longer have access to basic healthcare because clinics have been decimated and healthcare workers have fled, millions of people who have been displaced from their homes and livelihoods and must now struggle to survive."

While the U.S. exit from Afghanistan concluded on Monday afternoon (midnight Tuesday local time), direct U.S. military presence linked to the ongoing "War on Terror" persists in dozens of countries, most notably in Iraq and Syria.

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A U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division soldier carves the body count that their mortar team has chalked up on a rock March 9, 2002 near the villages of Sherkhankheyl, Marzak and Bobelkiel, Afghanistan. A year later, the U.S. would open a second front by invading Iraq, toppling its longtime leader and fighting another insurgency there as the "War on Terror" expanded. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Biden administration announced late last month that the U.S. military would conclude its "combat" mission in Iraq amid pressure from local Iran-aligned militias, but indicated an enduring security partnership with Baghdad and set no timetable for the withdrawal of forces.

As for Syria, U.S. officials have recently told Newsweek there were no plans to change the current strategy of backing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces despite protests from Damascus and its Iranian and Russian allies.

These three countries have also criticized U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and beyond. China, the top rival of the U.S., has frequently cited the costs in both blood and treasure of Washington's interventions as evidence of the shortcomings of the U.S. as a global power.

In a previous report in February, the Costs of War Project mapped out U.S. military involvement in 85 countries, nearly half of the recognized nations on Earth, in just the three years from 2018 through 2020, as part of the broader "War on Terror."

Many of these actions have been fueled by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military (AUMF) adopted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as well as two other AUMFs adopted in the leadup to the first Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq War in 2003. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to repeal all three, and the Biden administration has offered tacit support for replacing the broad acts with more specific language guiding the U.S. war machine.

It is not clear, however, how the presence of the Islamic State militant group's so-called Khorasan branch (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan, once again under Taliban rule, might affect these efforts. The Taliban has vowed to never allow the country's soil to again be used by militant groups to attack other countries as Al-Qaeda did 20 years ago and, while U.S. military leadership has signaled the potential for cooperation with the Taliban against ISIS-K, trust remains low between the two historic foes.

But in the face of any future action, Kashgorian of the National Priorities Project urges policymakers to think twice before engaging in any military moves with long-term consequences.

"Often the simple fact of our military presence antagonizes rivals more than it neutralizes them, which is something we've done with China, Russia, and other countries," Kashgorian told Newsweek. "We need to think much harder before sending planes, ships or troops, not just about how to win a fight but about what the unintended consequences will be."

"That doesn't mean abandoning the world," Kashgorian added. "Diplomacy works when we use it."

She cited the examples of nuclear treaties with Russia and the nuclear deal with Iran and agreements among adversaries that worked, that is before the latter was abandoned under Trump.

"If security for us and our allies is what we want, we should engage much more in diplomacy and commit to being accountable to international law to show we believe in it," Kashgorian said.

She said Washington should go beyond diplomacy, to efforts that provide tangible help to people.

"And we should invest in stability in countries around the world, not by arming them, but by investing in infrastructure, humanitarian aid, and other things that will prevent conflict, not make it more deadly," Kashgorian said. "All of that costs less than going to war, so we can still reinvest billions back here at home."