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Exclusive: US counterterrorism operations touched 85 countries in the last 3 years alone

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Nearly 20 months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” Nearly 18 years later, the U.S. is still entangled in military action in the Middle East and beyond.

After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11, much of the U.S. military activity has been focused on counterterrorism efforts, either in direct combat, through drone attacks, border patrols, intelligence gathering or training other nations’ security forces. 

These globe-spanning operations have cost the U.S. in blood and treasure and had a massive impact on populations around the world. Newer nonmilitary threats from climate change to cyberattacks raise questions about the utility of holding on to hundreds of foreign bases and deploying tens of thousands of troops overseas.

The US conducted counterterrorism operations in 85 countries from 2018-2020

Though Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria were once top of mind for the American public, the footprint has been much larger — and more recent — for the American military. New data from researcher Stephanie Savell for the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute shows that over the last three years the U.S. has been active in at least 85 countries.

An expanding US military

The Costs of War data shows the extent of recent activity abroad, but the United States has been the world’s dominant military power since the end of World War II. Here you can see when and where bases opened, including the expansion after 2001.

Meanwhile, China — considered by many to be the greatest competitor and threat to the U.S. — has only one official overseas base, in Djibouti, a country in eastern Africa. The Pentagon says China is building bases in Pakistan and in the western Pacific.

Beyond the battlefield

A closer look at the number of U.S. military and civilian personnel deployed around the world shows large concentrations of U.S. military personnel in Europe, partly reflecting the legacy of World War II, and in Asia since the Korean War and North Korea’s belligerent regime.

Data is from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Echoes of Sept. 11

America’s war on terror has lasted nearly two decades and cost about $6.4 trillion, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.

It has also claimed the lives of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of civilians, Costs of War data shows. More than 37 million people have been displaced or become refugees.

While some military experts say the benefits to U.S. security outweigh the costs, other say it’s time for a reassessment.

Cyber attacks aren't the future of warfare. They're already happening

China and Russia lead in online attacks against private and government U.S. computer networks. The Pentagon has acknowledged that cybersecurity is a growing risk with potential for mass disruptions.

Meanwhile, American domestic extremists, not foreign terrorists, present the gravest terrorism threat to the U.S., according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security issued in October. Pandemics, extreme weather due to climate change, and economic or infrastructure instabilities are also risks to national security, experts say.

U.S. leads world in military spending

The U.S. spent more than $731 billion on its military in 2019. While defense allocations are lower than in 2010, military spending is starting to increase. 

The U.S. dollar amount in 2019 is more than the next 10 nations combined, including China and Russia. And

Supporters of overseas bases say they allow the U.S. to rapidly respond to events in remote areas, including international disease outbreaks. But rising costs and changing threats may force the new Biden administration to consider changes in overseas deployments. 

Up to 800 overseas military bases

America’s vast reach illustrates why it has been called the “world’s police” — a country, critics say, that seeks global hegemony through a military empire despite emergent nonmilitary threats. There are up to 800 overseas U.S. military bases, according to data from the Pentagon and David Vine, an expert at American University.

This map shows around 350 bases for which USA TODAY has determined the opening dates and locations.

Read more: ‘A reckoning is near’: America has a vast overseas military empire. Does it still need it?

SOURCE: USA TODAY reporting and research; Council on Foreign Relations; Costs of War Project, Watson Institute, Brown University; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

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