Costs of the Afghan War

August 29, 2021

Was it worth spending over $2 trillion on the war machine, which resulted in the death of 240,000 people and the country in a complete mess and ironically at the mercy of the Taliban?

Afghans walk inside a fenced corridor at the Pak-Afghan border-crossing point in Chaman following the Talibans takeover of Afghanistan. — Photo courtesy AFP
Afghans walk inside a fenced corridor at the Pak-Afghan border-crossing point in Chaman following the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. — Photo courtesy AFP

The US-led Afghan war, by any stretch of imagination, is one of the most expensive wars US military had to fight after the end of World War II. Yet the ‘ending’ has brought to the fore this question: Was it worth spending over $2 trillion on the war machine, which resulted in the death of 240,000 people and the country in a complete mess and ironically at the mercy of those from whom the US set out to liberate it in 2001.

There cannot be a simple answer to such a question. As President Biden is saying, only history will judge, we might have to wait and see the dictates of the history. Key figures in Pentagon suggested as late as March 2021 to Biden Administration that a conditional approach to withdrawal be adopted to avoid substantial gains by the Taliban. The administration clearly overlooked the advice. In a September 2020 congressional testimony, Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, had said that “we are committed for long term in Afghanistan.” Fruitful intra-Afghan talks remained the caveat.

The American idea of “fruitful talks”, many in Afghan government, believed was centred around a transitional government by fielding America-based Ali Jlaly and Dr Omar Zakhilwal as main contenders for key posts in the interim. The idea was rejected outright by President Ashraf Ghani who intentionally delayed the intra-Afghan talks and kept boasting about the capability of his 309,000-strong Afghan national army despite US concerns that the Taliban had already gained control over 60 percent of the country and were within a final push for at least 26 (out of 34) provincial capitals in eastern, central and western provinces.

Around the same time a local news channel (Tolo News) broke the news about an undated letter, reportedly from Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state to President Ghani, whereby US had proposed a draft peace proposal for consideration by Afghan negotiators. (The text of the letter was published by the TV channel). It entailed concrete power-sharing alternatives, formation of a “transitional peace government,” selection of a new interim president “acceptable to both sides”, possible changes to the Afghan parliament and provincial councils (in both cases by either adding Taliban members to the current bodies or suspending them during the transitional government); creation of a new High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence to “review” legislation “to ensure compliance” with Islam; and the writing of a new constitution by a 21-member commission.

The terms were acceptable to many of the US allies, including Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. Even Hekmatyar appeared willing. However, Ghani considered all of them his adversaries. He called Khalilzad a US ‘viceroy’ trying to depose him from office and made sure that his cabinet delayed the talks as much as possible. Having no plan but the hope that the US might be bluffing, Ghani continued to push the timeline and preferred to wage a war of words rather than actions from signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020 till September 2020.

Sources close to Presidential Palace in Afghanistan have revealed that Ghani was so sure that he would be able to sell horror and threats to the newly-elected President Biden that he flew to Washington on half a nod from the Biden administration only to find out that Biden is “not interested” in prolonging the war or the stay. While China and Russia were hosting Taliban and Afghan opposition leaders like Karzai, Ghani kept everyone’s hopes alive that the US will not leave and tasked his confidant, Amarullah Saleh, to galvanise support among provincial governors and armed forces and keep the verbal defiance high. How well his plan worked is no longer a secret.

Whether US admits its defeat in Afghanistan seems to be immaterial now, what matters now is: who will benefit from this defeat of the super power.

As of now, based on my interaction with various factions in the country, these terms are still the corner stone of on-going negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan leaders like Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leaders of the Northern Alliance, Tajiks and the Hazara community.

Let’s walk through the expenses US Army and allied forces incurred to see what they had to dish out while carrying out first the Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2014) and then the Resolute Support Mission (2014-2021). As per data of the Congressional Research Services (CRS), the US Congress appropriated around $144 billion in overall aid for Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021 (61 percent for security, 25 percent for governance and development, 14 percent for civilian operations and humanitarian aid). The Department of Defence (DOD) during the same period spent $824.9 billion (from September 2002 till December 2020). Put together, these official figures come to around $968.9 billion. This does not include any of the costs incurred on operational support expenses paid to Pakistan or for instance, Central Asian states throughout the combat and the initial combat operations carried out between September 2001 till December 2001 wherein an estimated $200 billion was spent, using the mostly deadly and the most expensive software and hardware. This also does not include the long-term expenses Pentagon has to pay for welfare of the veterans, PSTDs, medical bills for the injured and interest for borrowing the money to meet the war expenses.

A relevant study conducted by Watson Institute at Brown University in Collaboration with Boston University put the total cost of the Afghan war at a whopping $2.26 trillion till September 2020. Under its Costs of War Project, the institute detailed its most recent estimates, finding that most of the money came out of $933 billion in DoD overseas contingency funding. The rest includes: $443 billion in DoD base budget increases to support the war; $296 billion to care for veterans; $59 billion in State overseas contingency funds; and $530 to cover the interest on the money borrowed to fund 20 years of deployments.

As per the presentations before the congressional committee by DoD senior command, US spending on military operations topped $1 trillion dollars the peak of its commitment during 2010-12 when the total boots on ground account was over 110,000 from US and combined with other allied forces the total ranged over 130,000. These however, dropped significantly once the drawdown started in Obama tenure starting 2014.

A BBC report says that UK and Germany - who had the largest numbers of troops in Afghanistan after the US - spent an estimated $30 billion and $19 billion, respectively, over the course of the war, mostly on its army operations, maintenance, police training while NATO sent $72 million worth of supplies and equipment to Afghanistan during the same period.

The study found out that US lost 2,442 soldiers in Afghanistan, 1,145 soldiers of allied forces (from NATO-led 51-nation ISAF coalition), 3,904 US contractors and 72,253 national military and police in Afghanistan and Pakistan died while conducting or supporting US military missions. United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) claims that more than 111,000 killed or injured since it began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009.

The same study puts the overall US engagement across 85 countries in the name of “counter terrorism activities” from 2001 till 2020 at $6.4 trillion. The cost of these ongoing operations cannot be ascertained exactly but it is estimated that till now for the State Department and the Department of Defence (DoD) will be around $927 billion per annum while care of veterans and medical bills for the disabled and PSTDs might hover around $1 trillion every year.

The human cost of these 85 wars stands at an estimated 801,000 deaths which include 7,075 US soldiers and 335,000 civilians. More than 38 million stand displaced in these countries hence leading to more deaths (not recorded under indirect deaths caused by these wars) because of malnutrition, health conditions. Suicide rate amongst US military, serving and returning, climbed significantly to 30,177 since 2004 — four times higher than in combat in the post-9/11 wars, signalling a widespread mental health crisis.

The study has found that since US military recruits heavily from low-income and minority communities, and the states that send the most troops to war are often the poorest states in the nation, certain states like Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alaska, Colorado, Texas, Nevada, Florida and certain towns have borne higher human costs than others. Interestingly, Pentagon is not recording the deaths of private contractors or foreign workers who have also died in these wars while providing logistical, operational and security support to US troops because it helps them avoid bad press as well as any compensation claims.

On the flip side, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) study conducted for the Government of Afghanistan reveals that poppy cultivation through these war years kept rising. A year before US invasion of Afghanistan, UNODC records that under Taliban rule poppy cultivation declined from 91,000 hectares in 1995 to just 8,000 hectares in 2001. Since then it just never looked back and grew to 193,000 hectares in 2007, over 224,000 hectares in 2014 and 329,000 hectares in 2017. With a lean year in 2019, the cultivated area again grew in 2020 to 224,000 hectares.

Once we compare the cost of war incurred by US and allies with the continued mess in Afghanistan, gains of poppy cultivation and suffering of the civilians, is it hard to dispel the idea that wars bring prosperity perhaps only to the corporate world but not to civilians. Whether US admits its defeat in Afghanistan seems to be immaterial now. What matters now is: who will benefit the most from this defeat of the superpower. Will it still be the corporate world or the extremists? Will it be the nation state or the trans-national groups? As they say, questions abound but answers are scarce.

The author is a  veteran journalist and can be reached

Costs of the Afghan War