Costs of War Project Study: Flawed Look at U.S. Military Action

A member of forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad walks atop a damaged building in the government held Sheikh Saeed district of Aleppo, December 12, 2016. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

A new report released by Brown University’s Costs of War Project makes a striking, but laughably misleading, claim.

A new report issued this week by Brown University’s Costs of War Project attempts to quantify the human cost of U.S. military operations since 9/11. Remarkably, it claims that the Global War on Terror has displaced well over 37 million people.

That is, as the report notes, almost as many people as live in California. It’s well more than the 10 million people displaced by World War I. And the report’s authors say that it’s a conservative estimate resulting from their “imperfect” methodology — they write that different, more accurate assumptions would likely place the true figure at something closer to the tens of millions displaced by World War II.

The human and fiscal costs of the post-9/11 wars are undoubtedly considerable, and attempting to quantify them could well be an enlightening exercise. But the Brown researchers have overreached in service of a political agenda. The report examines refugee numbers in eight countries where the United States has engaged in armed conflicts at some point since 2001, conflicts that it “bears a clear responsibility” for initiating, escalating, and participating in by other means, such as drone strikes and training foreign combatants.

Where it errs is in its methodology. In essence, it counts any displacement caused by these armed conflicts as part of the U.S.’s tab, regardless of when the conflicts started or which other actors could plausibly be blamed.

This last bit is important. To support such a sweeping claim about the number of refugees displaced by the U.S.’s war on terror, you’d need to make some effort to accurately determine the blame for each displacement, and the researchers in this case simply haven’t done so. In Yemen for example, their methodology would blame the U.S. both for displacements caused by a Houthi offensive and displacements caused by U.S.-backed Saudi airstrikes.

The authors of the report might say that in many of the conflicts they focused on, U.S. action to initiate or join in armed hostilities has had cascading effects, and that even events that take place years later should be counted. This is extremely tenuous logic. In Libya, displacements that resulted from the U.S.-backed aerial campaign that ultimately deposed Moammar Qaddafi should be counted. But it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that any refugees resulting from the proxy war engulfing Libya today — in which Russia and Turkey, but not the U.S., play starring roles — lie primarily at the feet of U.S. policymakers.

The illogic reaches its breaking point when the study examines the Syrian Civil War. The displacement caused by the war is almost as staggering as the death toll. The authors cite an estimate that put it at 13 million in 2018 and note that they could have simply added that number to the U.S.’s total and called it a day, but instead chose the “conservative” approach of focusing “our calculations on people displaced from five Syrian provinces where U.S. forces have fought and operated since 2014.”

One of those five provinces is Aleppo, where the city of the same name was besieged by Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran. After years of brutal conflict, the rebel-held city succumbed to the assault and was retaken by Bashar al-Assad’s forces in December of 2016. It was a humanitarian disaster — Syrian government forces blockaded the city, targeted its medical facilities, and slaughtered innocents. And, of course, thousands fled.

Aleppo is just one example of how the report lacks the precision to differentiate between U.S. military action against ISIS and the mass slaughter perpetrated by the Assad–Khamenei–Putin alliance in Syria. To these researchers, U.S. support of Syria’s rebels is considered the overriding factor in the war’s displacements. This is wrong on the facts, and, worse, it perpetuates the narrative that the U.S. intervention in Syria is morally equivalent to the efforts of Russia and Iran to prop up a regime that gasses civilians.

The report has gotten some attention since its release. It was the subject of a shamefully uncritical New York Times piece, and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft — a non-interventionist think tank — published an op-ed by its lead author. But its methodology has also been met with an online backlash fierce enough that Quincy’s executive vice president, Trita Parsi, felt compelled to write on Twitter that it “counts the refugees caused by wars the US initiated, escalated, or supported. It does not say that the US bears SOLE responsibility.”

Parsi is right in the narrowest sense; the Brown researchers even explicitly included a disclaimer to the same effect, and with good reason: “Sole” responsibility is a high bar to clear. But anyone who reads the report will come away from it with the distinct impression that it was meant to heap most of the responsibility for post-9/11 displacement in the countries analyzed on U.S. military action. Its conclusion gives the game away: “It is important to quantify how many people have been displaced as one dimension of the damage brought about by the United States’ post-9/11 wars.”

No amount of spin can obscure the ideological aims reflected by the report’s flawed methodology. If the authors had attempted a more constrained study, focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan, they would have earned themselves significantly more credibility. Instead, they chose to build their report around the 37 million figure, which is so deliberately misleading as to be laughable — and to warrant every last word of criticism it receives for providing cover to bad actors.

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