War on Terror: Causes, Course, Costs and Consequences Part 2

“This crusade – this war on terrorism – is going to take a while” George Bush


Though it was the worst intelligence failure of any intelligence agency in history, the USA took maximum advantage of 9/11 tragedy and embarked on the mission to accomplish the objectives set forth in the infamous neo-con paper, known as the American Century. Calling it as War on Terror, America employed all its -military, diplomatic and financial, to wage a war of terror on several countries besides Afghanistan-its starting point. 

Whether it was a stellar success as its proponents wants us to believe or a dismal failure as its opponents claim, is a debatable point but it has cost the world massively in terms of loss of human lives, financial losses, refugees crises, missed opportunities and surprisingly, increased global terrorism. What were the causes of the failure of War on Terror, what costs it imposed to those on the receiving end and what are its long term consequences, are some of the issues touched in this two-part  article

Costs of War on Terror

Any conflict, crises or war imposes huge costs on economies, including massive destruction of infrastructure and housing, disruption of trade, transport and production, not to mention the loss of lives and widespread human suffering. Some of the losses are

  1. Human Losses

According to a report by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, about 500,000 people have died violently in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan due to the US “war on terror”.  The report says the tally does not include all people who have died indirectly as a result of war, including through a loss of infrastructure or disease, combatants as well as non-combatants including children and women have lost their lives during the 18 years of war on terror in Afghanistan. If we include more than a million wounded, it means approximately 12% of the entire population of Afghanistan is either wounded or has been killed.  Some areas of the country have been affected disproportionately by the war; by some estimates, as many as a third of all deaths have occurred in and around Kabul.  

  • Financial Losses

According to Collier (2003), civil wars permanently reduce per capita GDP of a country by about 10 to 15%. When it comes to a specific country in conflict, estimates vary significantly. Same is the case with the countries targeted directly or affected indirectly during or as a result of the War on Terror; estimates will vary according to the parameters used and techniques employed.  The 2017 MENA Economic Monitor report puts the estimated cost of the damages to infrastructure in six Syrian cities at $7.2 billion at 2007 prices, or $41 billion at current prices. A Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) and UNDP report estimates the destruction of physical infrastructure at around $67.3 billion. Other estimates point to different numbers. The loss in GDP relative to the “no war” Counter-factual in Afghanistan alone is estimated at $100-200 billion.

  • Human Development Loss

War on terror have resulted in another type of loss which is even more difficult to estimate than the human or financial losses mentioned above namely loss of human development.  Millions of children have been unable to attend schools; thousands of patients have died for lack of medical facilities while millions of people are suffering from trauma. Inadequate provision of public services resulted in spread of formerly rare infectious diseases compounded by the poor sanitation, access to hygienic water, deteriorating living conditions and non-availability of timely vaccination.

  • Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees

Estimates vary; while Pakistan is accommodating nearly 2 million Afghan refugees, Iran is providing shelter to another one million. No one has a exact figure of internally displaced afghans. Similar is the case in Syria; according to Al-Jazeera, 10.9 million Syrians, or almost half the population, had been displaced by March 2015.  Out of these, nearly 3.8 million had been made refugees in the neighbouring countries namely Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan creating socioeconomic cum political problems in these courtiers.

  • Human Rights Violations

In any conflict truth and human rights are the first casualty; same happened in Syria. According to various human rights organizations and United Nations, human rights violations have been committed by all the warring parties.  Armed forces of both sides of the conflict blocked access of humanitarian convoys, confiscated food, cut off water supplies and targeted farmers working their fields. Residents of towns and cities under siege invariably  faced death by starvation due to fighting between the warring factions preventing food distribution by UNRWA.

ISIS forces have been accused by the UN of using public executions, amputations, and lashings in a campaign to instill fear. Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have also been a feature since the Syrian uprising began. At least 70 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian war, and more than 80 kidnapped.

Even USA  has been accused of these human rights abuses; actions that it deemed necessary to fight terrorism have been considered to be immoral, illegal, or both. These included the detention of accused enemy combatants without trial at Guantánamo Bay and at several secret prisons outside the United States, the use of torture against these detainees in an effort to extract intelligence, and the use of unmanned combat drones to kill suspected enemies in countries far beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Loss of Cultural Heritage

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the Syrian Crises was the wanton destruction of the cultural heritage of Syria-one of the oldest civilizations of the world. According the UNICEF, the war has affected 290 heritage sites, severely damaged 104, and completely destroyed 24. Five of the six World Heritage Sites in Syria have been damaged. While several culturally important sites got damaged due to the fighting among the warring parties, Palmyra and Kark des Chevaliers were deliberately destroyed by the fighters of the ISIL as a part of enforcing their own brand of Islamic Sharia. Illegal digging and museum thefts became common as war-stricken people resorted to   looting their own treasures and selling them in the lucrative black market.

Consequences of War on Terror

Besides the human, financial and economic costs and losses inflicted upon the people and the states of the countries targeted during the War on Terror, there are far reaching geopolitical consequences with long term ramifications for global world order. Some of these are

  1. Spread of Terrorism

Ironically, a war which was started to end terrorism has resulted in its spawning and growing into a global phenomenon. While USA became a safe place, Europe and the Middle East are now suffering from the menace of terrorism. Military presence and operations by the NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and its associated collateral damage, have increased public resentment and terrorist threats against the West. The war in Afghanistan had effectively scattered the al-Qaeda network, thereby making it even harder to counteract. It also increased anti-Americanism among the world’s Muslims, thereby amplifying the message of militant Islam and uniting disparate groups in a common cause.They allege that the War on Terrorism was a contrived smokescreen for the pursuit of a larger U.S. geopolitical agenda for controlling global oil reserves and countering the strategic challenge to global hegemony of the West.

  • Decline of USA as a Super Power

There are several reasons for the loss of American pre eminence in global affairs; however, its misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria in the name of War on Terror will be counted as among the most prominent reasons for this downfall. It inflicted a severe blow to the US economy and its reputation as a responsible global leader. The prestige of USA as a world power is now at its lowest-Afghanistan proved to be worst disaster than the Vietnam fiasco, more humiliating than the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. Soviets left Afghanistan as a result of an international agreement and with all pomp and show. God knows better how the American forces will leave it if they leave it at all!

  • Emergence of Multi-polar World

While the War on Terror was gradually seeping the energies of the USA and draining its economy, it was a God-send opportunity for the emerging China and a re-surging Russia  to change the global balance of power. It pushed several countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt etc. towards Russian-Chinese nexus leading towards the emergence of a multipolar world. At the same time, it also changed the regional equation in the Middle East. Iran has emerged as a regional power as an un-intended consequence of the War on Terror which helped Iran in three ways. Firstly, it broke the back of its worst enemy namely Sunni extremist Taliban in Afghanistan. Secondly, it eliminated Iran’s sworn enemy and rival for Middle East leadership namely Saddam Hussain and thirdly, the War increased the price of oil, the main export of Iran which helped it to sell it in black even at higher prices and avoid/ reduce the impact of the sanctions.

  • Increased Sectarian Threats

While Shia-Sunni rivalry is centuries old, its intensity and internecine warfare has increased tremendously during the War on Terror by design as well as by default. Syrian crises started as popular demand for good governance and soon turned into Anti-Assad movement. As Assad belongs to the country’s minority Alawite religious group, an offshoot of Shia, vested interests converted the whole movement as Shia-Sunni conflict. Within a short period, it engulfed the entire Islamic world, pitting Shias against Sunnis. In Syria, majority of the population, and most of the opposition, is Sunni who started targeting Alawites particularly by the dominantly Sunni rebel fighting groups like al-Nusra Front and the FSA. Finding them in a Catch-22 situation, Alawites had no option but to back Assad to the hilt. It is estimated that a third of 250,000 Alawite men of military age have been killed fighting in the Syrian civil war. This has repeated in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim majority countries

  • Spreading Crime Wave

In any conflict where clear cut lines cannot be defined between friends and foes, criminal gangs thrive who add fuel to the fire by gun running, money laundering, committing bank robberies, supplying mercenaries, helping people to settle personal scores on payment and other such services. The economic downturn caused by the conflict and sanctions also led to lower incomes leading to increase in poverty-related crimes. Breakdown of law enforcement and criminal justice system in big cities exacerbated the situation; rates of rapes, sexual assault and kidnappings increased many fold when the crises peaked in 2014/15.

In several regions, law and order became acute when even local commanders of non-state militias got engaged in war profiteering through protection rackets, looting, and organized crime. Arrival of the foreign fighters to assist their respective militant outfits was the last straw on camel’s back. Most of them being irregular mercenaries without any proper military training played havoc  as they began stealing civilian properties and engaging in kidnappings. Rebel forces invariably relied on criminal gangs to generate funds for purchasing arms, ammunition and other supplies

  • Spillover Effects

American War on Terror had some un-intended consequence with spillover effects.  Iraqi invasion changed the regime but also hastened the collapse of the state resulting in massive disruption of social services delivery and  virtual Balkanisation of the country;racial and sectarian tensions, which had been held in check by Saddam’s repressive regime were unleashed by his removal. Similarly, initially, Syrian crises were confined within the Syrian borders; with the space created by the state collapse in Iraq and Libya, ISIL, a militant organization with pan-Islamic mission emerged attracting Jihadists from different countries. ISIL fighters took control of large swaths of Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan territories and created their Islamic Caliphate. Even Lebanon was not spared; fighting between rebels and government forces also spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions resulting in increased sectarian violence. Similar thing happened in Afghanistan, which for several years had seemed to be under control, soon followed a similar trajectory, and by 2006 the U.S. was facing a full-blown insurgency there led by a reconstituted Taliban.

One other spillover effect was the arrival of hundreds and thousands of war refugees in Europe leading to xenophobic sentiments and rise of far right in several European countries. One of the reasons for overwhelming positive response for Brexit in the UK referendum was the fear of Turks invading UK masquerading as Syrian refugees.  About 667,000 people sought refuge in Lebanon disturbing the ethnic balance in a total population of Lebanon of 4.8 million. Arrival of such number of Syrian Sunnis is undermining Hezbollah’s status based on Shia Lebanese. Same is the situation in Jordan where Palestinian refugees have been eclipsed by the Syrian ones. Turkey is now hosting more than three million Syrian refugees surpassing Pakistan for accommodating more refugees.

  • Weapons Proliferation and Arms Race

One of the most unfortunate but inevitable consequences of the  War on Terror has been the  proliferation of arms and ammunition in the Middle East, Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries at three levels namely state, non-state and private. A cursory glance  at the amounts allocated to the defence and procurement of sophisticated weapons by these states are staggering. At the same time, several groups of the non-state actors, acting as proxies of the global/regional powers in various conflict zones have access to modern arms and ammunition. Unfortunately, sizable portion of these arms and ammunition have been sold in the black market to the drug mafias and war lords who feel no qualms in using these arms for their own criminal activities

Not only conventional arms and ammunition are easily available in the region but Sarin, Mustard agent and chlorine gas has been used during the conflict. Numerous casualties on account of use of chemical weapons led to the investigation by the UNO which confirmed use of Sarin gas in four occasions. All parties were blamed by one another for the use of these banned items.

  • Return of Footloose Jihadists

According to conservative estimates, more than 25,000 footloose jihadists, foreign fighters not attached with well-known militant outfits like Hamas or Hezbollah, participated in the Syrian crises to express their solidarity with their respective sectarian cause. Most of them came from the Islamic countries but it is estimated that at least 10% were from the European countries. Foreign fighters, who survived this ordeal, are returning to their respective home countries with ideas and intentions to replicate ISIS model collectively or as lone wolves.

Arrival of these highly motivated battle hardened ex-fighters is creating security crises for the governments. Not all returnees present the same degree of threat; as such, treating all former fighters as high risk may radicalise them further through unwarranted persecution. Some ex-terrorists could become powerful voices against the groups they once joined. Government should thoroughly screen these returnees to identify the more dangerous among them as well as to select credible and trustworthy individuals who could counter recruitment narratives.


There is no doubt the War on Terrorism succeeded in its stated objectives of dislodging of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan accused of harboring the known internal terrorists. Similarly, it initially succeeded in dismantling of terrorist networks and forced them to seek refuge in the mountains

However, due to incompetency of the US in handling the post-Taliban Afghanistan coupled with its zeal to accomplish too much in a brief time with less resources and planning, it got itself embroiled in a war which has gone beyond the stated objectives of the War on Terrorism. There are no signs of any clear US victory; rather USA is seen to be fighting a losing battle in Afghanistan. And it is losing it for the same reasons it lost in Vietnam, it lost in Iraq and is losing in Syria.

Taken from 20 Global Issues: A Handbook by Shahid Hussain Raja and published by Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07C1BT6KD

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