It’s been 4119 days since President Barack Obama announced the killing of the head of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, on May 2, 2011. On Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, it was President Joe Biden’s turn to stand in front of the American public to announce the killing of bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a drone strike in Afghanistan.
Democrats and Republicans lauded the killing of al-Zawahri, despite continuing debates on the efficacy and legality of the CIA’s lethal strikes program. Yet, as experts and analysts comment on the national security and strategic significance of al-Zawahri’s death, it’s just as important to recall the significant human costs of the US-led Global War on Terror worldwide.
THE UNFORGETTABLE COST
For nearly two decades, the United States has been relentlessly hunting for leaders of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. This has included multiple devastating air wars, lethal strikes even outside recognized war zones, and the deaths and injuries of tens of thousands of civilians in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
The war on terror’s impact on the US population, economy, and psyche has been well documented. Excluding future interest, the post-9/11 wars’ costs totaled around $8 trillion. According to the National Priorities Project, every hour, US taxpayers pay $93.26 million for the total cost of the war on terror. And while the full number of US servicemembers grappling with illness or injury is hard to quantify, as of September 2021, more than 7,000 American soldiers had died in US counterterrorism wars. At the same time, the United States conducted counterterror activities in 85 countries across the globe, eroding norms of both constitutional war powers and the international laws of armed conflict.
Al-Zawahri’s killing should not be used as a pretext for more drone strikes, which kill more civilians than terrorists. It’s time for the United States to break away from its inhumane counterterrorism policy.
As the forever wars’ geographic scope and targets ballooned, so did their staggering body count. As of last year, 929,000 people died due to direct war violence, including armed actors on all sides, contractors, journalists, and humanitarian workers. The number of indirect deaths resulting from the war’s accompanying maladies of disease, unexploded ordnance, and the forced displacement of 38 million people is incalculable. As always in war, civilians bore the brunt of the violence, with over 387,000 civilians killed in direct violence by all parties to the conflict, with Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen recording the highest number of civilian deaths. Critically, the formal declaration of the “war on terror” began in response to an attack on civilians, when 2,977 people were killed in al-Qaida’s attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
Since this tragic date, states and non-state armed groups have committed unspeakable atrocities against civilians and gross violations of fundamental human rights. With respect to the US government, this has included the arbitrary detention, torture, and inhumane treatment of detainees, which is prohibited under international humanitarian law. Mostly Muslim, brown, and Black men alleged to be working with al-Qaida were denied due process and abducted and transferred through “extraordinary rendition” to CIA-run “black sites” worldwide, where they were held without charge and often tortured. As of 2022, 39 men remain indefinitely detained at the prison in Guantanamo Bay; 27 of them have never been charged with a crime. The haunting images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq similarly demonstrated widespread deprivation of the rights to life, liberty, and dignity. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that of the victims at Abu Ghraib, between 70-90% were arrested by mistake. These abuses sowed the seeds for more violence as resistance to US occupation radicalized and metastasized as the Global War on Terror continued on.
Another impact of the post-9/11 wars, widely under-reported yet severely felt in countries where US operations have taken place, is environmental degradation and their effects on climate change. In a recent report, CIVIC found that warfare has led to devastating environmental impacts in Iraq, with tens of thousands of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) and other remnants of war still littering the Iraqi countryside and urban centers. In 2010, a news investigation found that the US military had generated some 11 million pounds (5 million kilograms) of toxic waste and abandoned it in Iraq. Until this day, Iraqi soil and water are polluted by depleted uranium, dioxin, and other hazardous material. These remnants of war have tainted prime arable land throughout the country, depriving families of their primary livelihood sources and forcing them to migrate or resort to dangerous coping strategies such as sending children to work or marrying off their underage daughters.
ENDING THE HUNTS AND DRONE WARFARE
It’s unlikely that the death of al-Zawahri is the end of al-Qaida or the end of the US-led war on terror, despite President Joe Biden’s commitments to ending “endless war.” Instead, the United States maintains its war-based approach and appears poised to continue to employ its forever wars’ key tactics, including expansive security sector assistance and lethal strikes. “Over the horizon” strike capabilities and security sector assistance also mean that the United States continues to be a party to a vast array of conflicts.
During the Global War on Terror, US counterterrorism policy has fueled civilian harm and human rights abuses for nearly two decades by emboldening authoritarian regimes and perpetuating cycles of violence and instability. Al-Zawahri’s killing should not be used as a pretext for more drone strikes, which kill more civilians than terrorists. It’s time for the United States to break away from its inhumane counterterrorism policy.
Hajer Naili is the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)’s Director of Communications.
Correction 08/06: The article has been corrected to reflect the Costs of War Project data correctly.