Essay Juan Cole

Did America’s War on Terror Displace 37 Million People?

The Brown University Watson Institute Costs of War Project put out a report with the astounding figure. Here's what they got right and what they got wrong.
Syrian asylum seekers at a refugee facility in Turkey. [European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

The Brown University Watson Institute Costs of War Project has put out a report concluding that the US-led “War on Terror” has displaced 37 million people.

While there are parts of the report I agree with, some of the argument seems to me flawed. Let me explain why that is, below.

First of all, lead author David Vine and his colleagues are speaking of US “Post-9/11 Wars,” which is not exactly the same as the “War on Terror.”

The War on Terror is a stupid phrase that I have much criticized. I’m not alone– a Marine general once made fun of it to me when we were taking a walk in the woods together. But surely if it has any meaning at all, it means the fight against al-Qaeda and allied movements. The Congressional Authorization for the Use of military Force of 2002 specifically speaks of movements that planned out the September 11 attacks.

So even if the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have invoked the AUMF in their various police actions, analytically speaking it does not apply to anti-al-Qaeda movements such as the Houthis in Yemen or the Baathist government in Syria (which in 2002-2003 tortured al-Qaeda operatives for the United States).

So the “War on Terror” would comprise US military actions mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am all on board with Vine and his colleagues in criticizing the Bush administration war on Iraq. Iraq was not involved in 9/11, and there was no al-Qaeda to speak of in Iraq in 2002. What little there was was being hunted by the Baath secret police. Iraq was not making weapons of mass destruction and delivered to the UN documentation of its destruction of such programs in the late 1990s.

There was no reason for the United States to launch an aggressive war on Iraq, occupy it for 8.5 years, and destroy its main institutions, including the army. These actions led to the rise of ISIL and yet another US intervention.

The study estimates 9.2 million displaced in Iraq by these wars. OK, I can live with that estimate. And I agree that the proximate cause was the US war of aggression on Iraq. That is, many of those displaced were not displaced by the US military, but by Sunni or Shiite militias or the reconstituted Iraqi Army. But, if Bush hadn’t invaded in the first place, none of that would have happened.

So blaming the US for the 9.2 million Iraqi displaced is fair.

Likewise, the US involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen is shameful, and the US bears a large share of blame for the 4.4 million displaced there. Although the US is not fighting there, it has refueled Saudi and other bombers, it sold sophisticated military equipment to the belligerents, it has provided strategic advice, and anything anyone says bad about Washington in this regard is richly deserved. Even the Congress has denounced US support for this war, which is like bank robbers denouncing greed, and tells you how awful and fruitless this war is.

Afghanistan is more complicated. The Soviet occupation from very late 1978 to 1988 killed about one million, wounded 3 million, displaced 2 million internally, displaced 2 million to Iran, and displaced 3 million to Pakistan. This is out of a population of some 16 million at the time!

As for the US and NATO after 2001, they in my view made an error in trying to stay in Afghanistan after they helped the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban in 2001-2002. But that initial campaign does not appear to have resulted in high levels of casualties or displacement. The attempt of Donald Rumsfeld and his successors to stay in Afghanistan helped alienate some of the population and led to a resurgence of the Taliban, which now hold 5-10% of the country and have a presence in half of provinces. This renewed war between the Kabul government and the Taliban has produced thousands of casualties a year, and has displaced millions.

The Brown report estimates “2.1 million Afghans fled the country with another 3.2 million” displaced internally.

I have no reason to doubt these figures. But it is also true that after the fall of the Taliban and the return of relative peace in some provinces, about half of the 3 million Afghans in Pakistan have been repatriated. So you’d have to say that the US and NATO partially reversed that emigration flow that had been caused by the Soviets. That is, the US permitted 1.5 million Afghans to return home, so if 2.1 million left during the past 19 years, the net outflow is more like 600,000.

Very little US war-fighting in Afghanistan was in Persian-speaking provinces, which were relatively calm. It was mostly in the Pushtun regions where the Taliban were strong. So I just am not convinced that enormous numbers of Tajiks and Hazaras went to Iran because of the ongoing fighting with the Taliban. In fact, many Shiite Hazaras were able to come back home because the Taliban were overthrown (the Taliban had massacred them).

We must remember that Iran is an oil state, which means it has a need for foreign guest workers, and there are now 3 million Afghans in Iran. They are largely Persian-speaking and from provinces that were relatively secure after the Tajik-Hazara-Uzbek alliance came to dominate the country. Many are therefore economic migrants like the Pakistanis who go to the Gulf. There may be advantages to claiming to be refugees as opposed to economic migrants. There is also a tendency toward refugee inflation on the part of governments seeking UN help.

So I’m not sure you could nail down a net foreign displacement at all.

Internally displaced persons of 3.2 million is plausible. But remember that the Taliban and more recently ISIL are responsible for some proportion of them. Unlike in Iraq, where there was nothing much going on before Bush invaded it, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and were already widely displacing people, so you can’t blame the US for their continuing to do so. Taliban ideology is hard line Deobandi and they hate Shiites, Sufis, Sunni mainstream traditionalists, and Uzbek secularists, and have not scrupled to shoot them or blow them up at will.

I just think that the picture in Afghanistan is much more mixed, both with regard to responsibility and with regard to movements on the ground, than is true of Iraq.

I can’t understand the report’s allegations about Libya. They are reporting 1.2 million displacements. Are they counting everyone who was displaced since the Libyan Revolution of 2011, including those who then went home?

So the United Nations High Commission on Refugees says as of 2020 of Libya: “217,002 people displaced inside the country (IDPs) and 278,559 people who have returned home (returnees).”

There are also some 40,000 refugees in Libya from other countries, many of them trying to make their way by sea to Europe.

Anyway, I just think this part of the report is deeply flawed. The no-fly zone in Libya was not part of any war on terror, it was ordered by the United Nations Security Council. The International Criminal Court found the Gaddafis guilty of massive crimes against humanity. If there had been no no-fly zone, Gaddafi’s armor would have crush Misrata, Benghazi, Bayda and other cities, and would have also produced hundreds of thousands of displaced. We saw in Syria what an entrenched one-party state did to a rebelling population. The same thing would have happened in Libya.

The US role in 2011 was mainly to take out Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft batteries. The sorties flown to stop Gaddafi’s armor from advancing on revolutionaries were by various NATO states. I was in Libya in 2012 and it was fragile but not anything like Syria. Bad things happened from 2014, when militias started controlling politics, but I can’t for the life of me see what the US had to do with that.

As for Syria, that is a really complex situation that I can’t go into here at the length it deserves. But, again, if the US had not intervened against ISIL, then a lot more people would have been displaced by ISIL, and, indeed, ISIL did chase 600,000 Syrian Kurds into Turkey.

Millions were displaced in western Syria by the civil war. It isn’t clear to me that the US was a major player in all that. In fact, people complained about Obama’s reluctance to get involved.

Surely with regard to Syria, the millions displaced must be blamed on the al-Assad regime, on extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, on Hizbullah and Iraqi militias, and most of all on Russia, the fighter jets of which have bombed the bejesus out of Syria. Nobody has done a report on all the people displaced by Russia.

In the end, I think the numbers arrived at and attributed to the US in this report are exaggerated. But even if the actual number of displaced caused by the US is probably closer to 13 million, that is more than the population of my state, Michigan, and is pretty damning in itself.

Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole is a public intellectual, prominent blogger and essayist, and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.


  1. Equating Congress to “bank robbers denouncing greed” is perhaps the best to glean from Juan Cole’s assessment of the ‘war on terror’….
    All the rest is provincial imagination playing out globally as the culmination of settler colonial imperialism focused in resource extraction…a total waste…as we witness the withdrawal of education , health, and infrastructure development for the citizens of this country to support the obscenity of the military industrial congressional budget…so we continue to vomit in the middle of a pandemic that no amount of spending on ‘homeland defense’ has shielded the citizens…. Instead, the virtues of incarcerating black and brown people, the pauperization of women and children and social isolation of from the rest of world are the values that are played out …in the most violent and despicable display of ignorance ever displayed on the world stage….a collapse of colossal proportions is what we are witnessing which only our youth will have the energy and resolve to survive…
    Thank you for these posts…all strength and courage to you and all who are focused on these issues of truth and reality.

  2. despicable CIA Cole lies about Soviet casualties in Afghanistan—this fascist liar fully endorsed US invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya….obviously CIA funded

  3. not only does Cole lie—he reduces the report to 37 million when this is their lowest estimate—they estimate up to 60 million–likely more accurate….counterpunch revealed Cole to be a CIA asset….this belongs at Breitbart

    1. who created the Afghan war?—USA….USA created, funded al Qaeda, Taliban…USSR was requested by the Afghan govt to assist in combatting these amerikan created/funded fundamentalists—something CIA Cole ignores—-even CIA estimates regard that 500,000 deaths occurred , Soviet estimates 30%

  4. Quite right Yuri.

    The US was complicit in the whole Afghan thing. That egregious, arrogant, prick Zbigniew Brzezinski used the Afghans to get at the USSR. No moral compass whatsoever. Brzezinski bragged about how clever he had been. He claims it was he who was the architect of the USSR’s downfall. What a man!

    When asked if he regretted supporting Islamist groups in their fight against the Soviet Union, Brzezinski replied, “What was more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? And he’s supposed to be an intellectual. About as intellectual as Attila the Hun.

    Cole uses the spurious argument:

    “I have no reason to doubt these figures. (weasel words) But it is also true that after the fall of the Taliban and the return of relative peace (more weasel words) in some provinces, about half of the 3 million Afghans in Pakistan have been repatriated.”

    So the 1.5 million that left and then returned, weren’t even a little bit inconvenienced by their initial flight from Afghanistan. They probably treated it like a bit of a holiday. I wonder which resorts they went to? The Costa Brava, Swiss Alps, Côte d’Azur? If things were so good why didn’t the majority of them came back? Why only half?

    Claiming that people are ONLY displaced if they don’t return is just a nonsense. So you can add that 1.5 million straight back into the numbers.

    And as for Libya, the US picked on Libya because it was weak and couldn’t fight back. Libya didn’t down the 747 over Lockerby, it is far more likely that the Iranians did that as revenge for the US shooting down Iran Air 665 by the Vincennes. The British reported to the French that it was Libya so we can know for certain that Libya didn’t do it. You can’t trust the British or the French intelligence agencies on their own so in combination; truth is zero.

    It’s good to know that two years after the downing of the Iranian Airliner:

    ” the commander of the Vincennes and the officer in charge of anti-air warfare were given the Legion of Merit award for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service” and for the “calm and professional atmosphere” during the period of the destruction of the Iranian Airbus. The incident was not mentioned in the award.”

    But the US didn’t like the idea of tackling Iran, they are pretty good fighters, much better to pick on Libya.

    “We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of War, Hilary Clinton said triumphantly of Gaddaffi’s ignominious end. Good to see that she was happy that an old man of 69 on the run was savagely abused and executed particularly when he hadn’t done anything to her. All part of her election campaign at Libya’s expense. Power mad warmonger, that’s Clinton.

    It’s this type of serial, obnoxious behavior by the US that shows the hypocrisy of all of its leaders and why fewer and fewer people are believing in the US as a fair and reasonable leader of the free world.

    I don’t know if this Cole character is an CIA asset or not. I think if I were the director of the CIA I’d want someone a bit more convincing.

    He writes a lot of unsubstantiated, weasel words so I think the the appellation of “Juan the Weasel” maybe better “Juan the CIA Asset”

    1. In Counterpunch 2011, you can access the article where Cole’s relationship to the CIA is documented. I will add that regarding Libya the invasion derived from their enormous influence in northern African nations which had displaced influence and threatened economic interests of USA, France UK
      Cole is an apologist for imperialism; he dissimulates, ignores and omits any truth that contradicts his narrative. I suspect he continues to be paid by the CIA. They pay many journalists—see Udo Ulfkotte

      1. Exactly right yuri. This is why Cole states “if the US had not intervened against ISIL” when it is well-documented that the CIA, together with the Gulf dictators, were entirely responsible for the funding, training and arming of ISIL and anti-government insurgents in Syria, along with the staging of false-flag chemical attacks. And when Cole states that the “no-fly zone in Libya was not part of any war on terror”, this is an outright lie, as it was nothing less than an ADVANCEMENT of the Global War OF Terror, as Clinton and the Obama admin and the CIA ran their ratlines of jihadists straight from the Libyan atrocity to Syria for the next stage of trying to topple the Syrian government.

        Juan Cole is a complete tool, and fundamentally dishonest.

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