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Looking Back at The War on Terror

The War on Terror lasted over twenty years and has caused irreversible damage to numerous countries. What started as an effort to curb and put a stop to a rise in global terrorism ended in one of the costliest, most violent wars we have ever seen. 

U.S. troops ready to leave for an operation

The War on Terror was launched as a campaign to respond to the attacks on September 11th, 2001 conducted by Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group founded in the 1980s. There were two main goals for the United States in this war: to combat and eliminate threats posed by Al-Qaeda and other terrorists globally and to eliminate any threats to the United States’ economic and military hegemony. Combined with its allies, the U.S. initiated the War on Terror to combat terrorism on a worldwide scale.

Any Upside?

Although most of the coverage around the War on Terror contains heavy criticism (rightfully so), some positives can be taken from the two-decade-long war. As a result of this campaign against terrorism, terrorist training camps in Afghanistan were closed down and hundreds of terrorists were arrested, captured, or eliminated, including many senior Al-Qaeda members. The U.S. was also able to foil future large-scale terrorist attacks similar to the one it faced in 2001. [1]

There isn’t much more good to say about the War on Terror. Because of the tremendous cost not only financially, but on human life, the War on Terror looks like a huge mistake. The campaign was used for more than two decades to justify violent wars and has justified the curbing of civil liberties and human rights. Many of the tactics used in warfare are heavily criticized, such as surveillance and torture techniques, along with drone strikes. [2]

The Financial Cost

What was spent over the course of twenty years by the United States in these wars is unfathomable: $8 trillion in total. [3] The September 11th attacks caused significant economic damage to the United States in itself. Stock markets plummeted, with airlines and insurance sectors being heavily affected, but the wars following brought tremendously high costs as well. In the first couple years of the War on Terror, 2001 and 2002, the United States federal government spent around $36 billion yearly on the war, however, this number quickly increased, and in 2008 the spending reached its high of $187 billion, mostly a result of the high cost of the war in Iraq. [4] After 2008, though, the yearly cost began to decline ($157 billion in 2009) because of the decline in the number of troops after the surge into Iraq and the beginning of troop withdrawals. This decline in cost, however, was partly offset by the rising costs of the Afghanistan war. 

The Cost of Human Life

The cost of the War on Terror was not only large in the amount of dollars spent on it, but the amount of lives that were taken as well. It is estimated that over 900,000 people died in total in these wars, more than 350,000 of these deaths being civilians and more than 7,000 of them being United States military troops. [3] Some deaths were a result of damages caused by the war, such as water sewage damage and infrastructure issues. Drones, which were frequently used in military operations in these wars, killed over 22,000 civilians alone from 2001-2021. [5]

Millions Displaced

The wars didn’t just harm the countries that were fighting in them; decades of violence displaced millions of people from their homes, leaving them searching for any place to go to be safe. [6] Wars destroyed critical infrastructure such as homes, hospitals, and schools in many areas. Refugee camps that are set up to harbor refugees sometimes have poor conditions because of overcrowding and a lack of essential resources, leaving many refugees unable to receive the help they need. Countries that are hotspots for refugees to flee face struggles as well. Some countries may not have the complete ability to handle large amounts of refugees while others may fear that hosting refugees could lead to security risks in their country. [7]

Rise in Islamaphobia

The effects of the War on Terror are still being felt to this day, with many refugees in search of a place to go, families left to deal with tremendous amounts of loss, and trillions of dollars gone forever. One effect of the War on Terror that isn’t as frequently discussed, though, is the rise in Islamaphobia and xenophobia that came following the wars. Stereotypes and prejudice against Muslims increased following 9/11 and the years of war after. The increase in refugees as a result of the wars has also been associated with increases in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. [8]

Looking to the Future

With the end of the war in Afghanistan in August of 2021, the War on Terror has been declared over. The damage done over the twenty years of war is irreversible and will be felt globally for generations. Some actions can be taken to mend some harm caused, though. For one, the United States can increase the number of refugees it takes in to try to make up for its part in causing the refugee crisis. Though nothing can be done about the $8 trillion that was spent over those twenty years, lessons can be learned and applied to future spending. A shift in the allocation of funding from going to these lengthy and violent wars to going to other causes such as halting climate change, fighting poverty, or providing a better education for people around the world can make a huge, visible change in the world. 

[3] Kimball, J. (2021, September 1). Costs of the 20-year war on terror: $8 trillion and 900,000 deaths. Brown University; Brown University.

[4] “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations since 9/11.”,

[5] Beaumont, Peter. “US Airstrikes Killed at Least 22,000 Civilians since 9/11, Analysis Finds.” The Guardian, 7 Sept. 2021,

[6] Costs of War. n.d. “David Vine, Cala Coffman, Katalina Khoury, Madison Lovasz, Helen Bush, Rachel Leduc, and Jennifer Walkup.” Rte.Ie. Retrieved February 1, 2024 (

[7] Analysis | As refugee numbers rise, many countries want to shut them out for security concerns. (n.d.). Washington Post.

[8] Abbas, Tahir. “Reflection: The “War on Terror”, Islamophobia and Radicalisation Twenty Years On.” Critical Studies on Terrorism, vol. 14, no. 4, 24 Sept. 2021, pp. 1–3,


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