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The True Costs of War: Civilian Displacement, Airstrike Death Tolls, and the Political Camouflage of Military Contractors

The Corporation-supported Costs of War Project documents the many costs of America’s “war on terror”


What is the true cost of war? Brown University’s Costs of War Project, a grantee of Carnegie Corporation of New York that involves a team of 50 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners, and physicians, has been working on answering this question since 2010, focusing specifically on the costs of the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and related violence in Pakistan and Syria. Their research documents the human, financial, environmental, social, and political costs and consequences of the post-9/11 wars, which the Costs of War Project defines as U.S.-led military operations and other government programs around the world that have grown out of former President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Two recent reports from the project, “Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars,” and “Afghanistan’s Rising Civilian Death Toll Due to Airstrikes, 2017–2020,” analyze the costly human aspects of long-term combat: displacement and civilian deaths due to airstrikes. The reports reveal that at least 37 million people have been displaced due to America’s post-9/11 wars, and in 2019 alone, airstrikes killed 700 civilians in Afghanistan – more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002.

“[Displacement] has been one of the major forms of damage, of course along with the deaths and injuries, that have been caused by these wars,” David Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University and lead author of the Creating Refugees report, explained in a New York Times article about the report. “It tells us that U.S. involvement in these countries has been horrifically catastrophic, horrifically damaging in ways that I don’t think that most people in the United States, in many ways myself included, have grappled with or reckoned with in even the slightest terms.”

According to a write up in Politico’s “Morning Defense” newsletter on the Civilian Death Toll Due to Airstrikes report, “the cost of peace is growing steeper for civilians in Afghanistan.” In an analysis of the report, writer Bryan Bender explains, “new rules of engagement ushered in by the Trump administration three years ago coincided with a 95 percent increase in civilians killed by U.S and allied airstrikes compared to the previous decade.”

To mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the post-9/11 wars, Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future have produced a series of webinars as part of its 20 Years of War research series supported by the  Corporation.

One webinar, “The ‘Camo Economy’: The Economic & Political Camouflage of Military Contracting,” focuses on another Corporation-supported report which discusses rapidly growing military spending by the United States, particularly around military contractors. As Heidi Peltier, assistant research professor in Boston University’s Department of Political Science and lead author of the report explains in the webinar, using contractors in place of troops obscures both the financial and human costs of war. In 2019, the Pentagon spent $370 billion on contracting – more than half the total defense-related discretionary spending, $676 billion, and a 164% increase in spending on contractors compared to 2001.

For more information, including recently published papers and the latest figures around the budgetary and civilian costs of America’s post-9/11 wars, visit the Costs of War website.



Top: Afghan refugee children stand in front of their home in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, on February 12, 2020. (Credit: Abdul Majeed /AFP via Getty Images)