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The Cost Of U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts: More Than 800,000 Lives And $6.4 Trillion, Research Finds09:40
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Smoke from a U.S.-led coalition airstrike is seen over buildings near the front line on February 10, 2019 in Bagouz, Syria. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Smoke from a U.S.-led coalition airstrike is seen over buildings near the front line on February 10, 2019 in Bagouz, Syria. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

New research shows the U.S. conducted counterterrorism operations in 85 countries from 2018 to 2020.

The data comes from the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute. Researcher Stephanie Savell, co-director of the project, says U.S. troops engaged in combat on the ground in 8 countries during this period including Somalia, Mali and Yemen.

In Kenya, a 2020 raid by the fundamentalist group Al-Shabaab on an airfield in Manda Bay — an important military base for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Somalia — killed one American service member and two contractors, Savell says.

The same year, a hostage rescue mission in Nigeria left six of the captors dead. The U.S. stepped in quickly out of fear that the captors would sell the American hostage to a local affiliate of al-Qaida or ISIS, she says.

The data also shows the U.S. carried out air or drone strikes in seven other countries. The U.S. now relies more heavily on drone strikes and missile strikes compared to ground troops, she says.

The number of drone strikes spiked in places such as Somalia during the Trump administration, she says. Air and drone strikes also occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen.

Researchers looked through public records and investigative journalism to identify counterterrorism operations. But Savell says there could be more counterterrorism efforts that the public doesn’t know about.

The U.S. government isn’t always transparent about counterterror operations, she says.

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“I think of it as an octopus: The head of the counterterror operations [is] in the Middle East,” she says. “And then there's dozens of tentacles stretching all across the globe from Mali to the Philippines — all these places where we're undertaking operations that the American public really just doesn't usually find out about.”

In addition to combat and airstrikes, the report counts a range of efforts as counterterrorism operations including training police to better combat terrorism or installing a border patrol system connected to a global terrorist database.

Researchers found the U.S. conducted counterterrorism military exercises such as training foreign troops in 41 countries. The Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security carried out training and assistance in counterterrorism in 79 countries, according to the data.

China is often regarded as the biggest threat to the U.S. but the East Asian country’s military reach pales in comparison. China’s only overseas military is in Africa.

China is cutting economic deals and investing in roads and infrastructure to build influence — a vastly different strategy from the U.S., Savell says.

“The U.S. is relying on this very old-fashioned approach of a kind of empire-like physical presence,” she says. “We hear a lot about the Pentagon shifting its strategic focus to competition with Russia and China rather than counterterrorism. But if you look at the physical kind of footprint of where these actions are taking place all around the world, you see that there's yet to be a corresponding drawdown of the counterterror apparatus.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The Costs of War Project found that 800,000 people have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen since the U.S. launched the war on terror, Savell says.

That number only includes lives directly lost “through bombs and bullets” in major hotspots, Savell says. Countless more people have died due to displacement, loss of livelihood or infrastructure, and increased disease, she says.

The U.S. has spent $6.4 trillion on the war on terror since 2001, the Costs of War Project finds. The figure includes money spent caring for veterans of the post-9/11 wars and interest accrued on the borrowed money that funds these “credit-card wars,” Savell says. She predicts the total cost will be close to $7 trillion in the project’s next report.

“It’s just a huge amount of taxpayer money, so much that it's affecting every other budget item in this country,” she says. “So if you think about the spending that we are able to do on things like the pandemic and anything else, housing, you name it, it's all being squeezed by the amount of money that we spend on the military and on these post-9/11 wars.”

More terrorist groups exist now compared to before 9/11, she says, and these groups recruit more people in more parts of the world. The data shows that the U.S. needs to rethink whether the post 9/11 wars are meeting the goals of protecting Americans and civilians around the globe.

“Research really points to the fact that treating terrorism as a problem that can be solved by war is not an effective way of going about it,” she says. “It's been completely counterproductive by some measures.”


Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 2, 2021.

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