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The True Cost of the War on Terror

Though the global body count is obscured, America's destabilizing actions may have claimed more lives than nonstate terrorists.
rocket launcher in afghanistan

Last week’s two mass murders carried out by militants allegedly associated with the Islamic State (IS) took place shortly after the release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism 2014. Country Reports is 389 pages long, broken down by country and region. It also includes statistical charts, a focus on state sponsors, and analysis of transnational issues. It is worth a read if only to gain some insight into how the United States government views an issue as unwieldy and ultimately indefinable as “international terrorism.”

Initial reactions from interested parties and the media suggest that one can find something in the report to support nearly any point of view if one looks hard enough. The New York Times emphasized in its headline that “Iran still aids terrorism,” a conclusion also reached by the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Critics and friends of Israel, meanwhile, found the report’s explicit detailing of the Palestinian civilian deaths that occurred during the fighting in Gaza last summer either an “about time” moment or just one more indication that the White House is intent on punishing Benjamin Netanyahu.

I found the report to be somewhat perplexing, at times contradictory in terms of how it defines terrorism and what conclusions it draws. The 21st century might well be called the century of the terrorist. Terrorism is constantly in the news in one form or another and American newspapers have been reporting that “terrorism trend lines are ‘worse than at any other point in history.’” But what is terrorism? It has frequently been pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not an actual physical adversary, though it is less often noted that a simple definition of what constitutes terrorism is hardly universally accepted, while the designation itself is essentially political. The glib assertion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter fails to capture the distinction’s consequences as the terror label itself increasingly comes with a number of legal and practical liabilities attached. Describing an organization as terroristic in order to discredit it has itself become a tactic, and one that sometimes has only limited applicability to what the group in question actually believes or does.

The bone of contention in defining terrorism concerns where to draw the line in terms of the use of violence in furtherance of a political objective. In practice, it is generally accepted that state players who employ violence do so within a social framework that confers legitimacy, while non-state players who use political violence are ipso facto terrorists, or at least susceptible to being tagged with that label, which confers upon them both illegitimacy and a particularly abhorrent criminality. But some on the receiving end of such a Manichean distinction object, noting that the laws defining terror are themselves drawn up by the governments and international organizations, which inevitably give themselves immunity in terms of their own potential liability. They would argue that established regimes will inevitably conspire to label their enemies terrorists to marginalize both resistance movements and internal dissent in such a way as to diminish the credibility of the groups that are so targeted. One might reasonably argue that the government assertion of a right to a monopoly use of violence is sometimes in practice indistinguishable from the actions of non-state players.

One might also argue that “the threat of terrorism” is deliberately exaggerated and even nurtured by governments to justify tax increases and military spending while also permitting behavior by the country’s executive free of the usual legal and constitutional restraints. Interestingly, the State Department report, perhaps inadvertently, provides ample evidence that the global terrorist threat is not particularly global, and in most cases hardly amounts to a threat. The report notes that there was an 81 percent increase in terrorism connected fatalities in 2014, but it also observes that nearly 80 percent of all those fatal terrorist attacks took place in five countries—Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria. All are either war zones or have large areas that are not controlled by the central government. To put it simply, a power vacuum will often be filled by forces hostile to the country’s rulers and the result will be bloody.

For Americans the threat is best described as miniscule, hardly reflective of the popular view of a world awash with militants all seeking to kill U.S. citizens before travelling to Times Square so they can blow themselves up. Twenty-four Americans died in terrorist incidents overseas in 2014, but seventeen of those deaths occurred in war zones (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria). Five more were Israeli citizens who resided in Israel but who had a second U.S. passport. The other two deaths were in Abu Dhabi and Egypt. Even if one broadens the analysis to include terrorist incidents in the United States, which are not covered in the State Department report, the numbers remain the same as there were no deaths in 2014.

Overall, there have only been seven incidents attributed to jihadi-type terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11, resulting in 26 deaths. Not to disparage the death of anyone, but statistically speaking that is roughly one incident every two years and less than two deaths per year, hardly an existential crisis for the United States of America. During the same time period 48 Americans were killed in the U.S. by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists in 19 separate domestic terrorist incidents.

Even the labeling of Iran as “aiding terrorism” is a bit of a fudge that raises some questions regarding how plausibly defensive behavior by various governments is categorized. The main charges against Iran are that it is supporting anti-American radical Shi’ite militiamen who are helping defend Iraq, and that it and its proxy Hezbollah are aiding the Syrian government as well. As the U.S. government claims that Syria is itself guilty of terrorism, Iran thus becomes a terror sponsor once removed, permitting it to be tarred with the same brush.

But the State Department report also goes on to describe IS as the most serious new terrorist threat. As the Islamic State is opposed on the ground by both Iran and Syria as well as by Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias it would appear that Damascus and Tehran are only doing what the U.S. is also seeking to do, i.e. destroy IS. It should be clear that the policy makes even less sense than the Pentagon’s arming of Syrian rebels, which suggests that some in Washington want to differentiate between “good” and “bad” terrorists. Conspicuously, the State Department report makes no claim that Iran is in any way threatening Americans and provides no evidence to suggest that its client Hezbollah is an international terrorist organization. Even WINEP can only cite the arrests of three suspected but not convicted Hezbollah operatives in Thailand and Peru in 2014 to substantiate its claim that the group operates worldwide.

All of which, yet again, raises the question of who or what a terrorist is, how one attempts to tally the actual death toll, and what it means. A recent report by the highly respected Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility suggests that there has been considerable deliberate understating of the true consequences of terrorism. The report reveals that more than 1.3 million people were killed during the first 10 years post-9/11 as part of the so-called “global war on terror” (GWOT) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. As one might reasonably add Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the carnage and update the numbers on Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan for all areas where the U.S. is or has been engaged militarily the current total might easily exceed two million or more. The report stresses that the estimate of the dead is “conservative” based on the most reliable sources, suggesting that there are large numbers of deaths that have been reported but could not be confirmed.

The State Department report is of necessity heavy on numbers and light on introspection, while it cannot be expected that anyone in Washington will take the blame for the anarchy that has been unleashed in the Arab heartland. Still less would anyone actually try to understand what motivates people to commit terrorist acts. To be sure, there is enough blame to go around, and not all of those possibly millions of potential war on terror victims were killed by American bullets or bombs. But their deaths are plausibly the consequence of ill-advised military interventions and operations to destabilize and replace existing governments, starting with the Taliban and continuing with Libya as well as into the present with operations directed against Syria.

How many of the dead that the Department of State scrupulously reports on each year are ultimately the victims of a misdirected and overly muscular response unleashed after 9/11, and how many new deaths will be added to that tally, is anyone’s guess, but attempts to point the finger at bit players like Iran and Syria might be convenient and politically comforting even as they are basically misguided.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.