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USA/Global: Millions Displaced by US Post-9/11 Wars

AfricaFocus Bulletin
September 28, 2020 (2020-09-28)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“Wartime displacement (alongside war deaths and injuries) must be central to any analysis of the post-9/11 wars and their short- and long-term consequences. Displacement also must be central to any possible consideration of the future use of military force by the United States or others. Ultimately, displacing 37 million—and perhaps as many as 59 million—raises the question of who bears responsibility for repairing the damage inflicted on those displaced.” - Brown University Costs of War Project

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from this new report documenting one large part of the damage from wars in which the United States has played a major role in the post 9/11 period. The calculation includes refugees and internally displaced from 8 countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, and Syria. The excerpts below include the sections on Somalia and Libya. The full report, including charts and a full methodological appendix, is available at

Also included below is the latest essay by William Minter and Imani Countess, entitled “Overhauling U.S. Foreign Policy.” This essay, which appeared first in Organizing Upgrade on September 22, builds on a multipart essay series entitled Beyond Eurocentrism and U.S. Exceptionalism.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on peace and security, visit

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit

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Creating Refugees:   Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars

David Vine, Cala Coffman, Katalina Khoury, Madison Lovasz, Helen Bush, Rachel Leduc, and Jennifer Walkup

September 8, 2020

Costs of War Project, Brown University

Executive Summary

Since President George W. Bush announced a “global war on terror” following Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the U.S. military has engaged in combat around the world. As in past conflicts, the United States’ post-9/11 wars have resulted in mass population displacements. This report is the first to measure comprehensively how many people these wars have displaced. Using the best available international data, this report conservatively estimates that at least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the U.S. military has launched or participated in since 2001. The report details a methodology for calculating wartime displacement, provides an overview of displacement in each war-affected country, and points to displacement’s individual and societal impacts.

Wartime displacement (alongside war deaths and injuries) must be central to any analysis of the post-9/11 wars and their short- and long-term consequences. Displacement also must be central to any possible consideration of the future use of military force by the United States or others. Ultimately, displacing 37 million—and perhaps as many as 59 million—raises the question of who bears responsibility for repairing the damage inflicted on those displaced.

Major Findings

§  The U.S. post-9/11 wars have forcibly displaced at least 37 million people in and from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, and Syria. This exceeds those displaced by every war since 1900, except World War II.

§  Millions more have been displaced by other post-9/11 conflicts involving U.S. troops in smaller combat operations, including in: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Niger, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia.

§  37 million is a very conservative estimate. The total displaced by the U.S. post-9/11 wars could be closer to 48–59 million.

§  25.3 million people have returned after being displaced, although return does not erase the trauma of displacement or mean that those displaced have returned to their original homes or to a secure life.

§  Any number is limited in what it can convey about displacement’s damage. The people behind the numbers can be difficult to see, and numbers cannot communicate how it might feel to lose one’s home, belongings, community, and much more. Displacement has caused incalculable harm to individuals, families, towns, cities, regions, and entire countries physically, socially, emotionally, and economically.

The U.S. post-9/11 wars have displaced at least 37 million people in and from eight countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, and Syria.


Since the George W. Bush administration launched a “global war on terror” following Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the U.S. military has waged war continuously for almost two decades.2 In that time, U.S. forces have fought in wars or participated in other combat operations in at least 24 countries.3 The destruction inflicted by warfare in these countries has been incalculable for civilians and combatants, for U.S. military personnel and their family members, and for entire societies. Deaths and injuries number in the millions.   Like other wars throughout history, the U.S. post-9/11 wars have caused millions of people—the vast majority, civilians—to fear for their lives and flee in search of safety. Millions have fled air strikes, bombings, artillery fire, drone attacks, gun battles, and rape. People have fled the destruction of their homes, neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, jobs, and local food and water sources. They have escaped forced evictions, death threats, and large-scale ethnic cleansing set off by the U.S wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular.4

To our knowledge, no one has calculated how many people have been displaced by the United States’ post-9/11 wars. Some scholars, journalists, and international organizations have provided displacement data for some of these wars, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. However these statistics tend to be snapshots of the number of refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) at a particular point in time rather than a full accounting of the total number of people displaced over time since the start of the wars.

This paper calculates the total number of displaced people in the eight post-9/11 wars in which U.S. forces have been most significantly involved. We focus on wars where the U.S. government bears a clear responsibility for initiating armed combat (the overlapping Afghanistan/Pakistan war and the post-2003 war in Iraq); for escalating armed conflict (U.S. and European intervention in the Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and Libya’s ongoing civil war and U.S. involvement in Syria); or for being a significant participant in combat through drone strikes, battlefield advising, logistical support, arms sales, and other means (U.S. forces’ involvement in wars in Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines).

In documenting displacement caused by the U.S. post-9/11 wars, we are not suggesting the U.S. government or the United States as a country is solely responsible for the displacement. Causation is never so simple. Causation always involves a multiplicity of combatants and other powerful actors, centuries of history, and large-scale political, economic, and social forces. Even in the simplest of cases, conditions of pre-existing poverty, environmental change, prior wars, and other forms of violence shape who is displaced and who is not.

This paper and its accompanying tables document several categories of people displaced by the post-9/11 wars: 1) refugees, 2) asylum seekers pursuing protection as refugees, and 3) internally displaced persons or people (IDPs). We also calculate the number of 4) refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs who have returned to their country or area of origin.

Ultimately, we estimate that at least 37 million people have been displaced in just eight countries since 2001 (Table 1). This includes 8 million people displaced across international borders as refugees and asylum seekers and 29 million people displaced internally to other parts of their countries. To put these figures in perspective, displacing  37 million people is equivalent to removing nearly all the residents of the state of California or all the people in Texas and Virginia combined. The figure is almost as large as the population of Canada. In historical terms, 37 million displaced is more than those displaced by any other war or disaster since at least the start of the twentieth century with the sole exception of World War II (see Table 2).

The United States’ post-9/11 wars have contributed significantly to the dramatic increase in recent years in the number of people displaced by war and violent conflict worldwide: Between 2010 and 2019, the total number of refugees and IDPs globally has nearly doubled from 41 million to 79.5 million.

In the next section, this paper proceeds with an overview of our methodology and approach to calculating wartime displacement. A more detailed discussion is in the Appendix. We next provide an overview of displacement in each war-affected country. We then present the results of our calculations and discuss the limits of quantitative measurement. We conclude by discussing the significance of our findings to assessments of the post-9/11 wars, to debates about the use of military force more broadly, and to questions about who bears responsibility for repairing damage suffered by the displaced.


Somalia (2002–present)

[Conflict in Somalia has been ongoing since the early 1990s, when  some 3 million were displaced and one quarter million died; the  roots of the violence date to at least the U.S.-Soviet Cold War  and involve longstanding competition over territory, regional  autonomy, and resources. In the 1990s, the U.S. military sent  25,000 troops as part of UN humanitarian operations. They left  after soldiers took heavy casualties during fighting in Mogadishu  in 1993. See, e.g., Global IDP Project, “Internally Displaced  Somalis,” 4–5, 11–13; Catherine Besteman, “The Costs of War in  Somalia,” Brown University, Costs of War Project, September 5,  2019; Anna Lindley and Anita Haslie, “Unlocking Protracted  Displacement: Somali Case Study,” Working Paper Series No. 79,  Oxford University, August 2011, 301,  displacement-somalia-2011.pdf.]

Displacement has shaped life in Somalia for decades. In 2004, the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that “virtually all [emphasis added] Somalis have been displaced by violence at least once in their life.” The U.S. government has been involved in fighting there since 2002, shortly after the George W. Bush administration declared its “war on terrorism.” For most of the last 19 years, U.S. forces have used military bases in Djibouti and elsewhere in the region to carry out drone assassinations of alleged militants. In 2006, the U.S. military and CIA backed an Ethiopian-led invasion of Somalia to remove the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from power. U.S. and Ethiopian leaders claimed the ICU was an Al Qaeda ally; ICU leaders denied the charge. The invasion succeeded in further radicalizing the ICU’s armed wing, Al Shabaab, which declared allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012. A war between Al Shabaab and a UN-recognized Somali government and its U.S. and other foreign allies continues to this day. U.S. forces have expanded their presence in Somalia in recent years: there are at least five small U.S. military bases and at least one CIA base in the country. The Donald Trump administration has dramatically increased air strikes against Al Shabaab and an Islamic State presence; civilian casualties have also increased, with an estimated 15 killed in 2020 and scores killed since 2007.

Political instability and violent conflict have heightened and been mutually reinforcing with humanitarian crises caused by drought, flooding, attendant famine, and widespread poverty.  By the end of 2010, amid a famine that would kill hundreds of thousands, almost 1.5 million people had been displaced due to conflict and violence. In 2019 alone, there were almost 200,000 new cases of internal displacement, mostly around Al Shabaab’s stronghold in southeast Somalia. In total, by the end of 2019, approximately 4.2 million Somalis had been displaced within the country (3.4 million) or beyond its borders as refugees or asylum seekers (800,000). Most refugees ended up in neighboring countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Smaller numbers have reached Uganda, Djibouti, South Africa, Germany, and Sweden. Thousands reached the United States during each year of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, while less than 700 have arrived in the last three years of the Trump administration.


Libya (2011–present)

Hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been displaced in the years following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi and the U.S., U.K., French, and Qatari invasion that subsequently helped overthrow his regime. Violence increased following the outside military intervention, and the country plunged into a civil war involving “myriads of militias” and a growing Islamic State presence. The subtitle of an IDMC report summarizes what ensued: “State Collapse Triggers Mass Displacement.” In 2011, alone, around 150,000 fled the country, mostly to Tunisia. Most returned to Libya within a matter of months, but by 2015, there were a total of 500,000 IDPs across the country. More than 8% of the population had been displaced internally.

The war’s destabilization of Libya also significantly impacted migration patterns in Africa’s Sahel region. Darker-skinned immigrants from West African and Sub-Saharan African countries, whom Gaddafi had welcomed as a labor force in Libya, experienced increased violence, racism, and displacement following Gaddafi’s downfall. Some Libyans attacked Black Africans and others who supported Gaddafi or were perceived to have benefitted from his rule, fueling displacement. Around 15,000, mostly sub-Saharan migrant laborers, fled abroad in 2011. In subsequent years, violence and instability in Libya has made the country a center of human trafficking and the main point of departure for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Violence and displacement decreased after 2016 but rebounded in 2019 after an intensification of the ongoing civil war between the Libyan National Army and the UN backed Government of National Accord. Both sides are backed by external powers, including Russia and Turkey, respectively, in what has become a full-fledged proxy war. In 2019, new internal displacement incidents tripled over the prior year to 215,000. A total of around 451,000 were living as IDPs by year’s end.

As of 2019, IDMC reports that 97% of Libyan IDPs were struggling to cover basic expenses, 17% were food insecure (53% in the capital, Tripoli), and 46% could not afford healthcare. Among working-age IDPs, 29% reported that their incomes had decreased by up to 50%. Despite some progress toward a ceasefire and peace, the situation remains “extremely fragile.”

Displacement in the U.S. Post-9/11 Wars: 37 million

Based on the methodology discussed in detail in the Appendix, we now present our total displacement calculations. ...

Our 37 million estimate is also conservative because it does not include millions more who have been displaced during other post-9/11 wars and conflicts where U.S. forces have been involved in relatively limited but still substantial ways. The U.S. government has employed combat troops, drone strikes and surveillance, military training, arms sales, and other pro- government aid in countries including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia (related to the war in Yemen), South Sudan, Tunisia, and Uganda.

In most of these countries, the U.S. military and allied European forces have backed national governments’ counter-insurgency campaigns and “counter-terrorism” operations against Islamist militants and other insurgents. In Burkina Faso, for example, there were more than half a million incidents of displacement in 2019; by year’s end, around 560,000 Burkinabe were living as IDPs. In Mali, 208,000 were living as IDPs by the end of 2019 as a result of years of violent conflict. Since 2001, U.S. combat troops have operated in every single one of the ten countries now suffering from the most severe internal displacement in the world, according to IDMC. The Central African Republic joins Burkina Faso and Mali in the top three. The rest of the top ten include Niger, Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.


Overhauling U.S. Foreign Policy: Bitter Fights Ahead

by William Minter and Imani Countess*

* Imani Countess is an Open Society Fellow focusing on economic inequality. William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. This essay, which appeared first in Organizing Upgrade on September 22, builds on a multipart essay series entitled Beyond Eurocentrism and U.S. Exceptionalism.

Protest outside the U.S Embassy in Kenya, June 9, 2020. Photo: The Star, Kenya

The most consequential election year in most of our lifetimes has featured stark crises unspooling against a backdrop of vigorous activist mobilizations and simmering public outrage. While the first essential step for progressives is to prevent the reelection of President Trump, that will not be enough. We need fundamental change rather than a return to the status quo ante.

Climate change, public health, police violence, and the systemic racism manifest in all policy areas are on the November 3 ballot. On these issues and others there is already significant mobilization to hold an incoming Democratic administration accountable.

This will not be easy, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The Democratic Party platform says that “we cannot simply aspire to restore American leadership. We must reinvent it for a new era.” But it fails to question the legitimacy of American preeminence and exceptionalism—or, more broadly, the understanding of the world as an arena primarily for competition rather than collaboration.

Challenge Militarism

Despite rising criticism of wasted money and endless wars, in late July significant majorities in the U.S. Congress, including Democrats as well as Republicans, defeated an amendment to cut 10% from the $740.5 billion military budget. The vote was 324 to 93 in the House of Representatives and 77 to 23 in the Senate.

There are critiques across a wide political spectrum of the U.S. military posture, and widely shared uneasiness about endless wars. But there is still no strong antiwar movement with links to progressive movements focused on domestic policy. The default assumption in public debate is that U.S. wars were and still are aimed at protecting the security of the United States. Military spending to defend against “adversaries” takes priority over spending that would enable the United States to play its part in combating common global threats and investing in human security.

Foreign policy veterans of the Obama-Biden years vary significantly in their views. Some acknowledge that policy cannot just return to the status quo before Trump. Yet even those who are most critical of previous policy still speak of “rebuilding the city on a hill”—the United States as leader and shining example for the world. Few are willing to engage in fundamental questioning of the U.S. global role.

Andrew Bacevich, a longtime critic of militarism, and others at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft are bringing options for anti-militarist positions into the establishment debate. But more substantive change is only likely to happen with greater pressure from progressive voices that are now largely outside the foreign policy establishment.

To be effective, mobilization must be broad, extending beyond foreign policy–focused constituencies to engage large swathes of the U.S. public. This vast reach marked the movement against the Vietnam War and the solidarity movements with Southern Africa and Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. Those mobilizations, however, were largely driven by external events and nightly news coverage that made the U.S. role impossible to ignore.

Today, as our military engagements drag on with dwindling media attention, there are fewer dramatic headlines to propel global issues into mainstream media and political debate. This makes it difficult, though by no means impossible, to build wider consciousness of global issues.

Forge National-Global Connections

As progressives, we can educate ourselves now to advance a global perspective and help pave the way for lobbying campaigns by progressive organizations seeking to influence a new administration.

As a first step, activists and organizations working primarily on domestic issues and those working on global or foreign policy issues should build closer links of understanding between them, even as they recognize the need to work along parallel tracks. Examples include the recent article by Max Elbaum in Organizing Upgrade, the wide range of organizations involved in the National Priorities Project, and the inclusion of action against militarism among the key demands of the Poor People's Campaign.

We should focus on issues, not on personalities. Defeating Trump is a prerequisite for advancing a progressive agenda, but opportunities for influencing a future Biden administration will depend on the strength of movements that put forth compelling alternative visions on key issues.

We should reinforce the message from climate justice organizations, such as the Sunrise Movement and, that the Green New Deal must be global. Among the specific implications: multilateral and bilateral collaboration with China is imperative, while a strategic partnership with the oil-rich Gulf autocracies is obsolete.

The Covid-19 pandemic makes clear that action to protect the right to health must be global. Among the specific implications: the United States must not only support the World Health Organization, but must learn from countries as diverse as Cuba, Vietnam, New Zealand, and South Korea, to name only a few.

As indicated by actions around the world in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, progressive activists in the United States need to recognize that anti-Black racism is global and not confined to any one country. This racism shows itself in the treatment of Africans and Afro-descendants in a wide range of countries and is reflected in the position of the African continent in the global hierarchy.

Call Attention to Fundamental Parallels

Both domestic law enforcement and the conduct of foreign wars continue to reflect the history of conquest, slavery, and U.S. empire of earlier centuries. The continuing effects of the “original sin” of slavery are now widely recognized; the effects of our imperial past on indigenous populations and the world receive less attention. Both domestic and global inequalities of all kinds are rooted in the history of conquest and empire as well as of slavery.

Follow the money! In communities around the country, local authorities are being challenged to divest from over-policing and invest in community needs instead. The same scrutiny and demands should apply to the federal budget, redirecting resources away from the military and toward investment in global public goods that advance human security.

It is also essential to address tax injustice by applying higher rates to the ultra-rich and by pursuing the wealth hidden in offshore accounts by corporations and wealthy elites around the world.This loss of capital is particularly acute for African countries, where local elites are conniving with a global network of facilitators to loot the continent. Efforts to curb such looting, by locating and taxing hidden wealth, would free up funds to be invested in Africa's urgent needs. The Stop the Bleeding campaign of African civil society groups, coordinated by Tax Justice Network-Africa, is working toward this aim with support from the Global Alliance for Tax Justice.

Don't Go Along with Foreign Policy Taboos

We should not shy away from confronting tough political issues with alternative frameworks. An area of particular concern, given current political biases among Democratic as well as Republican establishments, is support for justice in Palestine and Israel through global solidarity, including Palestinian, Jewish and other activists in the United States. We also need to mobilize resistance to the bipartisan trend toward a new Cold War with China, and support partnership for justice based on reliable information rather than arrogant unilateral intervention in crises such as those in Venezuela and Ecuador.

Progressives should prioritize support for members of Congress willing to speak out against foreign policy taboos, such as those in “the squad,” the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Don't Be Afraid to Dream

To challenge a new Democratic administration and inspire progressive mobilization, we should advance not only practical policy goals but also new visions of mutual cooperation beyond those presently thinkable. One clear albeit difficult example is the case of Cuba, where U.S. policy has been paralyzed for decades by right-wing pressures.

A progressive agenda for U.S.-Cuban relations should begin with the reversal of new restrictive measures imposed by the Trump administration and progress toward full elimination of the trade embargo and travel restrictions that have defined U.S. policy for almost six decades.

A more ambitious goal would be to stress U.S. collaboration with Cuba in promoting global health, as happened in the case of Ebola in West Africa. The United States should be prepared to accept future Cuban offers of assistance with disaster relief and preparedness, an offer that the George W. Bush administration rejected in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Most visionary, but also beneficial to both countries, would be for the United States to ask Cuba for technical assistance in developing equitable public health policies in this country—and to pay generously for such assistance. That could promote mutual understanding as well as begin to pay for repairing the damage done over many decades of U.S. intervention in Cuba.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter. For an archive of previous Bulletins, see,

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