August 2021 (update)

Since 2001, the War on Terror has mushroomed into a military campaign extending far beyond the early target of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In recent years, the War on Terror has spanned eighty-five countries, with U.S. involvement ranging from training and military assistance in some countries to combat and airstrikes in others. This lesson allows students to explore the scope of the War on Terror, examine its costs, and consider the future of U.S. counterterrorism policy.


Students will:

  • Examine the geography and scope of the War on Terror.
  • Explore the human, economic, social, and political costs of the War on Terror, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Consider how an analysis of the wars’ costs should influence current and future U.S. foreign policy.
  • Discuss the importance of public knowledge of the costs of war in a democracy.


The Costs of War Project
Handout: The Costs of War Project

Recommended Reading

Though this lesson can be completed as a stand-alone activity, it would also serve as a great synthesis activity after teaching any of the following units:

Optional Resources

Map of U.S. Counterterrorism Operations, 2018-2020

USA Today—Exclusive: US counterterrorism operations touched 85 countries in the last 3 years alone: Contains infographics on the War on Terror, U.S. military bases abroad, defense spending, and other related topics. Based on the Costs of War Project.

Additional videos: A selection of videos are incorporated into the lesson below. See a full list of videos with Professor Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project. 

Teaching about Sensitive Issues

Teaching about the War on Terror will require special sensitivity. Some students could have family members or friends serving in the military. Students may have family ties to Iraq, Afghanistan, or other regions in which the United States has been involved in military conflict. Debates might be especially intense for students with a personal connection. It is important to be sensitive to the students in your class and the ways in which this might be a difficult topic to study. Being prepared to deal with this content can help ensure that discussion and activities are enriching and productive. Our “Teaching About Controversial Issues: A Resource Guide” provides resources and pedagogical tools to feel more prepared to address controversial issues in the classroom.

In the Classroom

1. Introduction

Ask students to share what they know about the War on Terror. When did it start, and why? In which countries is it taking place? What have been some benefits or achievements of the wars? What have been some of the costs and negative consequences of the wars?

2. Mapping the War on Terror

Show the following video featuring Professor Stephanie Savell (What is the War on Terror?): 

Review the video with students. Professor Savell explains that the United States is taking action against terrorism in eighty countries. (This number has increased to eighty-five since the video was filmed.) In which countries is the United States carrying out airstrikes? Return to the 2:00 mark in the video and pause to point out these countries on the map: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. The map is also available here.

Looking at the map, in which countries have U.S. soldiers been involved in direct combat from 2018 to 2020? In how many countries is the United States providing counterterrorism training or assistance? Were students aware that the War on Terror spans so many places? If not, why do they think this is the case?

Next, show the following video (What is the Authorization for the Use of Military Force? with Stephanie Savell):

How was military action initially authorized by the United States in 2001? How has the scope of the War on Terror expanded since then? Why does Professor Savell believe that the continued use of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) is problematic? 

3. Exploring the Costs of War

Tell students that a group of experts created the Costs of War Project to explore the domestic and international costs and consequences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inform students that they will explore the group’s findings. 

Distribute the handout and break students into three groups. Tell students that they will work with their group members to explore the Costs of War website and record information on the handout. Assign one group to explore the human costs, one the economic costs, and one the social and political costs.

As part of their investigation, you may wish to have students watch the specific video below that pertains to their group’s assignment. These videos will introduce students to the various costs of war that the project has identified. Note that the first two videos contain updated data at the end. 

What have been the human costs of the War on Terror? with Stephanie Savell

What have been the economic costs of the War on Terror? with Stephanie Savell

What have been the social and political costs of the War on Terror? with Stephanie Savell


Note: The Costs of War website is extensive and presents a large amount of information. Make your expectations clear to students. For example, you may instruct them to record the major points that they believe are most important, or to focus on one or two topics that they find most interesting. You may also assign students to explore the “In the News” section of the website for recent developments. This USA Today article contains infographics on the War on Terror from the Costs of War Project, and may serve as an additional resource for students to explore.  

4. Presentations and Class Discussion

Ask each group to report back to the class on their section of the website. Instruct students to take notes on their graphic organizer as their classmates share their findings. Encourage students to share their personal reactions to the Costs of War Project. What did students find most interesting or surprising? Were there costs that students had not thought of before?

Show the following video (Has the War on Terror been effective? with Stephanie Savell):

According to Professor Savell, has the War on Terror been effective? Has it diminished the threat of terrorism? Improved U.S. security? What alternatives to military action does Professor Savell propose? 

Do students agree or disagree with Professor Savell? Can students identify any benefits or successes of the War on Terror? Do students think the benefits of the wars have been worth the costs? If so, why?

Do students believe the U.S. government has a responsibility to address the range of negative consequences identified by the Costs of War Project? For example, what responsibility does the U.S. government have to the families of Afghan civilians killed by U.S. bombing? To an Afghan or Iraqi infant born with a birth defect caused by toxic pollution from U.S. ammunition? To an Iraqi merchant whose store was destroyed by U.S. bombing? To local governments whose infrastructure was destroyed by U.S. bombing? To the child of a U.S. soldier who was killed overseas during the War on Terror? To U.S. citizens whose taxes have financed the War on Terror? 

You may also wish to show the following video to address U.S. defense spending (What are some myths about U.S. defense spending? with Stephanie Savell):

5. Looking Forward

Ask students to reflect on the geographic scope of the War on Terror. Were students surprised to learn about the range of countries in which the United States conducts counterterrorism operations? Why do students think that many of these operations are not front page news? Do students think that more Americans should know about the extent of the War on Terror? Why or why not?

Given what they have learned about the costs and consequences of the War on Terror, what do students think should be the role of the American public during wartime? What should be the role of the Congress and the president? In a democracy, who bears the most responsibility for citizens being informed about their country’s wars? The citizenry itself? The media/journalists? Government officials? Have students explain their answer. Can students think of any reasons why U.S. government officials would not want the American public to be fully informed about the country’s wars?

Critics of the War on Terror call it the “forever war.” Why do students think they call it that? How long do students think this war should be fought? How will the American public know when this war should end? If the American public believed the war should end, what could they do to try and make that happen?

Extra Challenge

  • Encourage students to write a letter to members of Congress or a local newspaper. Students should express their views and recommendations on the War on Terror. Students should provide examples or information from the Costs of War Project to support their arguments.
  • Assign students to select and research a country that is one of the lesser-known targets of the War on Terror (for example, a country other than Iraq or Afghanistan). Students can consult the map of U.S. counterterrorism operations.
  • Assign students to compare the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to another war in U.S. history. The following video may be a useful starting point for further research.

How are the Iraq and Afghanistan wars different from previous wars? (with Catherine Lutz)

Note: This lesson was originally published in April 2021.

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