The United States has been on permanent war footing since September 11, 2001. Its military interventions, most notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The United States has conducted combat operations in 24 different countries since 2001 and remains officially at war in at least seven. It is still fighting the longest war in its history in Afghanistan. Millions have been displaced as a consequence of these interventions. And yet the war on terror has failed even on its own terms: according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the number of Sunni Islamist militants around the world almost quadrupled between 2001 and 2018.
During the same period, many repressive regimes grew more entrenched. Exploiting the United States’ fixation on terrorism and its desire to enlist allies in the fight, authoritarian leaders around the world adopted the antiterrorist rhetoric of the administration of President George W. Bush, using it as an all-purpose excuse to crack down on dissent. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Communist Party officials to “emulate aspects of America’s ‘war on terror’” in order to justify abusive policies against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, according to a 2019 New York Times investigation based on internal Chinese government documents. The United States is not responsible for the decisions of all these actors, but its policies helped widen the opportunities for violence and repression.
The United States itself bore enormous costs as a result of its antiterrorism policies. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates the taxpayer bill for post-9/11 U.S. wars at almost $6 trillion—money not spent on health care, education, infrastructure, clean energy, or public health. The burdens of these wars fell disproportionately on U.S. soldiers and their families. A 2018 RAND study found that 2.77 million service members had served 5.4 million deployments since 9/11. More than 60,000 service members have been killed or wounded. Many have come home with permanent, life-altering injuries. Eighty-three percent of post-9/11 veterans report living with post-traumatic stress disorder. The country thanks its troops for their service but continues to send them on multiple deployments in wars with no clear purpose or strategy for victory.