A senior Obama administration official has said that the seemingly endless and ever expanding "war on terror" will continue for "At least 10 to 20 years." Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, made the chilling comments on Thursday during a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing on whether the legal basis for the war, the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), should be revised. And he meant not just 10 to 20 years in total, but at least another 10 to 20 years from now, on top of the 12 we have already witnessed.
The vaguely-worded AUMF grants the president sweeping powers to pursue suspected terrorists anywhere in the world, and essentially amounts to a license to wage perpetual war. And yet only now is Congress beginning to be concerned about the AUMF, despite having witnessed the consequences of it for the past 12 years. Back in 2001, only Democratic Representative Barbara Lee of California was courageous enough to vote against the act, citing precisely the dangers that some in Congress are now worried about. And you know things are getting bad when even those hawkiest of hawks, Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, start getting concerned.
So as we face the prospect of a perpetual and expanding "war on terror," let's look at what 12 years of it has already led to:
1. Massive number of civilian casualties
It is hard to pin down exactly how many civilian casualties there have been in the 'war on terror' but even by conservative estimates the number is huge. Below are the estimates given by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for the U.S. drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, estimates that some reports have called conservative:
CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004–2013
Total U.S. strikes: 368
U.S. Covert Action in Yemen 2002–2013
Confirmed U.S. drone strikes: 45-55
Total reported killed: 236-340
Possible extra U.S. drone strikes: 77-95
Total reported killed: 273-438
All other U.S. covert operations: 12-76
Total reported killed: 148-366
U.S. Covert Action in Somalia 2007–2013
U.S. drone strikes: 3-9
Total reported killed: 7-27
All other U.S. covert operations: 7-14
Total reported killed: 47-143
And that does not even include the U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan.
According to a study released by Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies in 2011, at least 132,000 civilians have died from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even this is a conservative estimate, with some studies putting the total at over half a million, if not a million. And then there are all those who have been injured.
Even if you take a conservative estimate of the number of civilians killed, it is still a staggering human toll.
2. Incredibly expensive
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone have already cost close to $1.5 trillion, and according to a recent Harvard study, that number will rise to between $4 trillion and $6 trillion when "the medical care of wounded veterans and expensive repairs to a force depleted by more than a decade of fighting" is taken into account.
The Guantanamo Bay prison camp, used to hold detainees captured during the 'war on terror', is alone costing over $900,000 per detainee per year, a total of about $150 million a year.
Costs of War, a project run by the National Priorities Project, a research organization that tracks federal spending, maintains a running counter of the total cost of Iraq and Afghan wars on its website.
And then there are the unknown costs of the U.S. drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia and the growing expansion of U.S. military activities into Africa.
Futhermore, there are the intangible, but just as significant, costs of the 'war on terror' mentality that pervades the U.S. government, "the endless rights erosions justified in its name." And just as these costs are becoming entrenched, the staggering human toll and massive financial cost of the 'war on terror' are only set to rise further. As the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald argues:
"It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation. This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war - justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism - that is the single greatest cause of that threat."
The AUMF should be repealed and this incredibly destructive and costly war brought to an end, but unfortunately none of those senators who raised concerns about it on Thursday actually suggested doing that.