Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

Social & Political Costs

U.S. policymakers scarcely considered alternatives to war in the aftermath of 9/11 or in debating the invasion of Iraq. Some of those alternative paradigms for addressing the problem of terror attacks are still available to the U.S.

The U.S. war has shattered the Afghan economy and left Afghans facing famine. In the aftermath of the U.S.-led war, the Iraqi government fails to provide basic human security for Iraqis and has regressed towards authoritarianism.

The post-9/11 wars have led to encroachments on basic social and political rights in the war zones and in the United States. The U.S. has conducted counterterrorism operations in at least 85 countries, and these activities have often intensified local conflicts and contributed to authoritarianism and illicit profiteering.

Though the militarization of U.S. policing is as old as the institution itself and rooted in anti-Black oppression, it has exploded since September 11, 2001 and its intensification must be counted among the costs of this country’s post-9/11 wars. In the U.S., Muslims and people of Arab and South Asian descent have been targets of racial profiling by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as suffering other forms of discrimination. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has focused on "foreign terrorist organizations" despite the fact that what DHS calls "domestic terrorism," a broad category that generally refers to violent attacks that take place primarily within the U.S. and encompasses white supremacist attacks, has been responsible for many more attempted attacks than have "foreign terrorist organizations" since 9/11. This focus is based on, and has created, widespread prejudice towards Muslims and people of Arab and South Asian descent. Furthermore, a focus on foreign terrorism wastes resources that could otherwise be channeled to more significant security threats, including climate change and public health.

At home, in the war zones, and in many other countries, U.S. and allied officials continue to indefinitely detain terror suspects without fair trial or access to legal counsel. Torture and mistreatment in custody remain major problems.

In the U.S., legislation and intelligence practices have eroded Americans’ constitutional freedoms from surveillance and their rights to privacy. Since 9/11, mass surveillance has grown exponentially, intensifying the criminalization of marginalized and racialized groups, particularly Muslims and immigrants. 

The U.S. government has borrowed trillions of dollars to pay for the post-9/11 wars at the same time that it has instituted tax cuts, a pattern which seen in historical perspective is predicted to lead to even higher levels of social inequality in the U.S. 

(Page updated as of September 2023)