Most Americans are likely unaware that US combat operations have taken place not only in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but also in 21 other nations since President George W. Bush announced a global war on terror.
The wars the U.S. government has fought since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have forced 37 million people — and perhaps as many as 59 million — from their homes, according to a newly released report from American University and Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
Until now, no one has known how many people the wars have displaced. Indeed, most Americans are likely unaware that U.S. combat operations have taken place not only in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but also in 21 other nations since President George W. Bush announced a global war on terror.
Neither the Pentagon, the State Department nor any other part of the U.S. government has tracked the displacement. Scholars and international organizations, such as the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, have provided some data about refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) for individual countries at war. But this data offers point-in-time counts rather than the cumulative number of people displaced since the wars started.
In the first calculation of its kind, American University’s Public Anthropology Clinic conservatively estimates that the eight most violent wars the U.S. military has launched or participated in since 2001 — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — have produced 8 million refugees and asylum seekers and 29 million internally displaced people.
The estimated 37 million displaced is more than those displaced by any war or disaster since at least 1900, except for World War II, when 30 million to 64 million or more people fled their homes. Thirty-seven million exceeds those displaced during World War I (approximately 10 million), the partition of India and Pakistan (14 million) and the U.S. war in Vietnam (13 million).
Displacing 37 million people is equivalent to removing nearly all the residents of the state of California or all the people in Texas and Virginia combined. The figure is almost as large as the population of Canada. The United States’ post-9/11 wars have played an overlooked role in fueling the near-doubling of refugees and internally displaced people globally between 2010 and 2019, from 41 million to 79.5 million.
Millions have fled air strikes, bombings, artillery fire, house raids, drone attacks, gun battles and rape. People have escaped the destruction of their homes, neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, jobs and local food and water sources. They have fled forced evictions, death threats and large-scale ethnic cleansing set off by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular.
The U.S. government is not solely responsible for displacing 37 million people; the Taliban, Iraqi Sunni and Shia militias, Al-Qaida, the Islamic State group and other governments, combatants and actors also bear responsibility.
Pre-existing conditions of poverty, global warming-induced environmental change and other violence have contributed to driving people from their homes. However, the eight wars in the AU study are ones the U.S. government bears responsibility for initiating, for escalating as a major combatant or for fueling, through drone strikes, battlefield advising, logistical support, arms sales and other aid.
- 5.3 million Afghans (representing 26% of the pre-war population) since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001;
- 3.7 million Pakistanis (3% of the pre-war population) since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 quickly became a single war crossing the border into northwest Pakistan;
- 1.7 million Filipinos (2%) since the U.S. military joined the Philippine government in its decades-old war with Abu Sayyaf and other insurgent groups in 2002;
- 4.2 million Somalis (46%) since U.S. forces began supporting a UN-recognized Somali government fighting the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2002 and, after 2006, the ICU’s breakaway militia wing Al Shabaab;
-4.4 million Yemenis (24%) since the U.S. government began drone assassinations of alleged terrorists in 2002 and backed a Saudi Arabia-led war against the Houthi movement since 2015;
- 9.2 million Iraqis (37%) since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation and the post-2014 war against the Islamic State group;
- 1.2 million Libyans (19%) since the U.S. and European governments intervened in the 2011 uprising against Moammar Gadhafi fueling an ongoing civil war;
- 7.1 million Syrians (37%) since the U.S. government began waging war against the Islamic State in 2014.
Most refugees from the wars in the study have fled to neighboring countries in the greater Middle East, especially Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. About 1 million reached Germany; hundreds of thousands fled to other countries in Europe as well as to the United States. Most Filipinos, Libyans and Yemenis have been displaced within their own countries.
Statistics for refugees and asylum seekers easily could be 1.5 to 2 times higher than the findings suggest, yielding some 41 million to 45 million people displaced. The 7.1 million Syrians displaced represent only those displaced from five Syrian provinces where U.S. forces have fought and operated since 2014 and the beginning of the U.S. war against the Islamic State in Syria.
A less conservative approach would include the displaced from all of Syria’s provinces since 2014 or as early as 2013 when the U.S. government began backing Syrian rebel groups. This could take the total to between 48 million and 59 million, comparable to the scale of World War II’s displacement.
The clinic’s 37 million estimate is also conservative because it does not include millions displaced during other post-9/11 wars and conflicts involving U.S. forces.
U.S. combat troops, drones strikes and surveillance, military training, arms sales and other pro-government aid have played roles in conflicts in countries including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia (linked to Yemen’s war), South Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda. In Burkina Faso, for example, there were 560,000 internally displaced people by the end of 2019 amid a growing militant insurgency.
The damage inflicted by displacement has been profound across all 24 countries where U.S. troops have deployed. Losing one’s home and community, among other losses, has impoverished people not just economically but also psychologically, socially, culturally and politically. The effects of displacement extend to host communities and countries, which can face burdens hosting refugees and those who have been displaced internally, including increased societal tensions. On the other hand, host societies often benefit from the arrival of displaced people because of greater societal diversity, increased economic activity and international aid.
Of course, displacement is just one facet of war’s destruction.
In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen alone, an estimated 755,000 to 786,000 civilians and combatants have died as a result of combat. An additional 15,000 U.S. military personnel and contractors have died in the post-9/11 wars. Total deaths on all sides in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen may reach 3–4 million or more, including those who have died as a result of disease, hunger and malnutrition caused by the wars. The number of those injured and traumatized extends into the tens of millions.
Ultimately, the harm inflicted by war, including on the 37 million to 59 million displaced, is incalculable. No number, no matter how large, can capture the immensity of the damage suffered.
Key sources: David Vine, The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020); David Vine, “Lists of U.S. Military Bases Abroad, 1776-2020,” American University Digital Research Archive; Base Structure Report: Fiscal Year 2018 Baseline; A Summary of the Real Property Inventory Data (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2018); Barbara Salazar Torreon and Sofia Plagakis, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798–2018 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2018).
Note: Some bases only occupied for part of 2001–2020. At the height of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there were over 2,000 bases abroad.
David Vine is Professor of political anthropology at American University in Washington, DC. David's new book, "The United States of War: A Global History of America's Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State" (University of California Press), will be released October 13. As part of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, David has helped compile and write "Militarization: A Reader" (Duke University Press, 2019) and "The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society," (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009). David's other writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Mother Jones, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.David is a board member of the Costs of War Project and a co-founder of the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition. David is a contributor to TomDispatch.com and Foreign Policy in Focus.
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”