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Calculating the costs of the Afghanistan War in lives, dollars and years

From 2001 to 2021 ….
Heading for the exit. Image: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 to destroy al-Qaida, remove the Taliban from power and remake the nation. On August 30, 2021, the US completed a pullout of troops from Afghanistan, providing an uncertain punctuation mark to two decades of conflict.

For the past 11 years I have closely followed the post-9/11 conflicts for the Costs of War Project, an initiative that brings together more than 50 scholars, physicians and legal and human rights experts to provide an account of the human, economic, budgetary and political costs and consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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Of course, by themselves figures can never give a complete picture of what happened and what it means, but they can help put this war in perspective.

The 20 numbers highlighted below, some drawn from figures released on Sept. 1, 2021, by the Costs of War Project, help tell the story of the Afghanistan War.

From 2001 to 2021

On September 18, 2001, the US House of Representatives voted 420-1 and the Senate 98-0 to authorise the United States to go to war, not just in Afghanistan, but in an open-ended commitment against “those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.” US Rep. Barbara Lee of California cast the only vote opposed to the war.

In other words, the US Congress took 7 days after the 9/11 attacks to deliberate on and authorize the war.

At 7 262 days from the first attack on Afghanistan to the final troop pullout, Afghanistan is said to be the US‘s longest war. But it isn’t – the US has not officially ended the Korean War. And US operations in Vietnam, which began in the mid-1950s and included the declared war from 1965-1975, also rival Afghanistan in longevity.

US President George W Bush told members of Congress in a joint session on September 20, 2001 that the war would be global, overt, covert and could last a very long time.

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. … Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen,” he said.

President George W. Bush addressing US troops.
President George W Bush speaks to soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum.
Image: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

The US started bombing Afghanistan a few weeks later. The Taliban surrendered in Kandahar on December 9, 2001. The US began to fight them again in earnest in March 2002. In April 2002, President Bush promised to help bring “true peace” to Afghanistan: “Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army. And peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls which works.”

The global war on terror was not confined to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US now has counterterrorism operations in 85 countries.

The human cost

Most Afghans alive today were not born when the US war began. The median age in Afghanistan is just 18.4 years old. Including their country’s war with the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989 and civil war in the 1990s, most Afghans have lived under nearly continuous war.

There are, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 980 000 US Afghanistan war veterans. Of these men and women, 507 000 served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

As of mid-August 2021, 20 722 members of the US military had been wounded in action in Afghanistan, not including the 18 who were injured in the attack by ISIS-K outside the airport in Kabul on August 26, 2021.

Of the veterans who were injured and lost a limb in the post-9/11 wars, many lost more than one. According to Dr. Paul Pasquina of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, of these veterans, “About 40% to 60% also sustained a brain injury. Because of some of the lessons learned and the innovations that have taken place on the battlefield … we were taking care of service members who in previous conflicts would have died.”

In fact, because of advances in trauma care, more than 90% of all soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq who were injured in the field survived. Many of the seriously injured survived wounds that in the past might have killed them.

In all, 2 455 US service members were killed in the Afghanistan War. The figure includes 13 US troops who were killed by ISIS-K in the Kabul airport attack on August 26, 2021.

The casket of a US soldier is seen through a doorway during a full military honors burial ceremony
A burial for one of 2 455 US troops who died in
Afghanistan. Image:
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

US deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom also include 130 service members who died in other locations besides Afghanistan, including Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

The US has paid US$100 000 in a “death gratuity to the survivors of each of the service members killed in the Afghanistan war, totaling $245.5 million.

More than 46 000 civilians have been killed by all sides in the Afghanistan conflict. These are the direct deaths from bombs, bullets, blasts and fire. Thousands more have been injured, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

And while the number of Afghans leaving the country has increased in recent weeks, more than 2.2 million displaced Afghans were living in Iran and Pakistan at the end of 2020. The United Nations Refugee Agency reported in late August 2021 that since the start of that year, more than 558 000 people have been internally displaced, having fled their homes to escape violence.

According to the United Nations, in 2021 about a third of people remaining in Afghanistan are malnourished. About half of all children under 5 years old experience malnutrition.

The human toll also includes the hundreds of Pakistani civilians who were killed in more than 400 US drone strikes since 2004. Those strikes happened as the US sought to kill Taliban and al-Qaida leaders who fled and sheltered there in late 2001 after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistani civilians have also been killed in crossfire during fighting between militants and the Pakistani military.

The financial cost

In terms of the federal budget, Congress has allocated a bit over $1 trillion to the Department of Defense for the Afghanistan War. But all told, the Afghanistan War has cost much more than that. Including the Department of Defense spending, more than $2.3 trillion has been spent so far, including increases to the Pentagon’s base military budget due to the fighting, State Department spending to reconstruct and democratize Afghanistan and train its military, interest on borrowing to pay for the war, and spending for veterans in the Veteran Affairs system.

The total costs so far for all post-9/11 war veterans’ disability and medical care costs are about $465 billion through fiscal 2022. And this doesn’t include the future costs of all the post-9/11 veterans’ medical and disability care, which Harvard University scholar Linda Bilmes estimates will likely add about $2 trillion to the overall cost of care for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars between now and 2050.

The war in Afghanistan, like many other wars before it, began with optimistic assessments of a quick victory and the promise to rebuild at war’s end. Despite Bush’s warning of a lengthy campaign, few thought then that would mean decades. But 20 years later, the US is still counting the costs.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on September 1, 2021 to correct the total death gratuity paid to survivors of service members killed in the Afghanistan war to $245.5 million.The Conversation

Neta C. Crawford, Professor of Political Science and Department Chair, Boston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

COMMENTS   33

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I see, there is no consideration or accounting for the 18 veterans who are committing and or attempting suicide with varying degrees of success every single day of the week! This war may have stopped in Afghanistan, but its impacts will be enduring for years to come, especially the resultant psychological trauma of war and its sequealae on the veterans and their families. How are we going to quantify that?

How do you come by this statistic? “varying degrees of success”? Either you are dead or not. Maybe almost dead?

The problem was that the US infantry soldier can’t fight. If they could not call in air support or artillery nothing happened.

Compare them to 32 Batallion when a group of 40 men, without air- or artillery support, attacked an MPLA/Soviet/Cuban base of 1500 to 2000 well-equipped soldiers and drove them out of the trenches. 600 casualties on the MPLA side. Buffalo suffered one casualty. Don’t corner a leopard, Israeli, or Boer.

Yeah, you guys also failed to train FNLA and UNITA. You lost the entire country (hint: it is not called SWA anymore). Bankrupted the state. Resulted in a vote that forced you to give your kid’s futures to the ANC with nothing to negotiate with and nothing to show for it – not even your own schools. You won that battle so hard you had to negotiate to give away the whole country to SWAPO who hold it to this day! Just like the Americans.

Great success. You must be so proud of the future you built for yourselves!

Meanwhile, today the boer sits leaderless, directionless and with no (positive) legacy for their offspring who will have to pay their bill for generations. All they can do in response? Write essays to preach to the converted.

I see Bib/Bibby/Aonk has returned under yet another guise.

All for nothing. However, it made the military-industrial complex in the USA fabulously wealthy, just like Vietnam did. Just follow the money.

Here is some unpleasant perspective from another angle. According to numbers from the World Bank, Afghanistan, being a war zone, had 7 violent deaths per 100 000 citizens in 2018, compared to 36 for South Africa.

If those casualties in Afghanistan can be blamed on a war with an invading superpower, which superpower has invaded us to kill 5 times as many civilians in South Africa? The South African war is 5 times more deadly and expensive than the Afghan war. The enemy does not use Reaper Drones, Armored Personnel Carriers, attack helicopters, sniper rifles, automatic weapons, land mines, or hand grenades. The enemy camouflages itself as ordinary citizens. This is a low-scale, less sophisticated, widely dispersed, relentless, and independent terror campaign.

What is the financial cost of the South African war if the human cost is 5 times higher than the Afghan war? Add up the loss of opportunities, the loss of human potential, the development that did not take place, and the bright future that was stolen from us.

The occupying force can leave Afghanistan, but can the occupying force leave South Africa if that force has colonized the mindset of the average citizen?
Measured in terms of casualty ratios and financial destruction, the mindset of the average local is 5 times more deadly and expensive than the mighty US army.

The average South African can emigrate to any war zone on earth and he will be safer than in most townships in South Africa. Do we need the Taliban(state religion) to drive this internal enemy out of South Africa, or should we wait for famine and disease to decimate the enemy?

Furthermore, it’s a biological warfare because this beautiful country is seemingly permanently infected with the cANCer virus, significant far worse than any covid mutation, present and future. This cANCer virus turns everything it touches into a loss-making, bankrupt, corrupted, cadre-invested cesspool of nothingness, while fatally infecting the braincells of the majority voter via short term T-shirts and food parcels.
Cry the beloved country

Very valid analogy. Good points made. And the S.A. government “looks on”.

You deserve to discuss this on SABC 1.

Don’t insult him. He is the messiah here.

What was the cost of your huge ‘victory’ in SWA?

Oh right. This whole situation that you endlessly whine about.

Preaching to the converted here! What activism! When do you actually do something to secure your future?

Only cleaners and tea ladies lable themselves as “big time execs”. Hurry up. It is tea-time

I think our dear Bloemfontein Newbe is DadApe in disguise :

Oh dear. I have upset the essay writers who are so happy in the future they created for themselves.

Interesting and yet somewhat disturbing response from a person that should have some sort of education – considering your perusal of these pages AND you are able to make comments – albeit that they are not of any abject meaning.

If the International community leaders had not capitulate and allowed an internally focused gradual and seamless integration process then SA Inc would be a totally different and vibrant country with strong positive outcomes.
Is this not the motto that Zimbabwe eschews when Mugarbage was running his paradise into the ground.

But alas having been born and raised in Zambia and emigrating to SA I just see the same old pattern being hammered out throughout SADAC and in fact the entire African continent.

At least people like Sensei and many more like myself had a sense of patriotism, pride and purpose – what do you have as a contribution. Nothing but corruption, greed and incompetence – the ANC mantra.

I have yet to meet a young South African be they white, black, Indian, Chinese or otherwise that would do their National Service and fight for this country.
And when we do eventually have ISIS hitting our borders then where are they going to run…..my guess is back to grasslands and huts.

Sadly, there are traumatic costs of war at any time in history that extend far beyond the battlefields. The unspoken fact about these recent post-WW2 conflicts is the nature and culture of the combatants.

In the 70 years since the end of WW2 wars have been about culture: Vietnam, Korea and a few other localised in South America and Africa – Communism; the Middle East about Islam against the West which includes Israel.

The West has been pragmatic in global relations based o the economics of trade, whereas Russia and the Islam states are driven by ideology.

And so it will continue until the ME shifts focus and Russia goes bankrupt again.

Yeah, but we scoff and tell people to get over apartheid.

Another victory for terrorists — North Korea, Zimbabwe and SA also spring to mind !!

I don’t see the Afghan military losses among the above figures. Not a single tribute to the sacrifices of the Afghan troops who fought alongside the US. From 2001 to 2014, when NATO’s combat mission ended, the Afghan forces suffered 14,000 dead, but from 2015 to 2020 an estimated 45,000 were killed.

Afghanistan has never been anything more than a territory of conflicted mongol empire clans and their warlords. A leftover that was never properly conquered by any single entity. The US interfered as a cold war extension against Russia. The old money Brit connection with the opium trade has assisted with the foreign-money-power continuation. The US has unwittingly supported a variety of fake enemies that need more and more money to fight and control. None of these political power players has ever given a second thought about the ordinary born-to-oppressed.

Something is missing in this article, how the US companies , such as Boeing , Raytheon, General Dynamics etc have massively benefitted from this war effort … since 1945 America had always been at war with some axis of evil in order to keep the American economy afloat . To all who have lost their lives , on either side of any campaign,RIP.

As you mention, something major is missing in this article, and in all articles about this topic, by the way. The Bretton Woods agreement in 1944, incentivized the USA to build the most powerful military machine in the world and to use it in defence of the purchasing power of the dollar.

The petrodollar system enables average Americans to live beyond their means. They will protect this exorbitant privilege with everything at their disposal. After the Nixon Shock of 1971, the value of the dollar, along with the entire American dream, hangs only on the dominant position of the US military. An international Fiat currency only has value if the military can enforce it as a means of payment. US Military = US dollar.

Ironically when SA tried the same, it bankrupted the state, resulted in genius leaders having to give your future to the ANC with nothing to show for it and made you international pariahs. Lol.

Also the teeny tiny matter of all the Afghan combatants on both sides. But hey – clearly you missed that one.

afghanistan is the biggest concentration camp or prison in the world..it created corruption,gangsters and dodgy businesses involving western countries like USA,Uk and even Australia

When will the US ever understand that you cannot let geo-political policy be led by the oligarchical war machinery, which are the weapons manufacturers?

So, in the quest for perpetual enemies, the US now has to pin that mantle on Russia and China, in order for the war machinary to continue to be a growth industry.

When will the US voters realize that they are being led by these oligarchs?

There is no real democracy in the US, so the real cost of the Afghan war is the erosion of democracy.

Very similar to SADF in SWA now Namibia run by SWAPO to this day.

Failed to train the locals. Massive cost in lives. Unpopular at home. Bankrupted the state. Resulted in you having to give your kid’s futures to the ANC with nothing to bargain with. Gave away all those diamonds. And you still think you won! Just like the Americans!

A key difference between this and SWA and Bush wars?

The US did not give their own territory to an untrained indisciplined bunch of soldiers. Nor did they give away their kids futures to the ANC with nothing to show for it all.

Go play with yourself wanker

Funny I was considering a terse response but thought it best not lower to their levels of intellect – because sadly within the ANC that is a sadly missing commodity.
If you can sell RSA Inc down the river to some fat newly minited BEE’s called El Presidente Gupta’s for a paltry sum AND still land up in jail and they sit in Dubai with all the cash you gotta ask yourself – who exactly got screwed here.

What is the ANC going to leave their kids. Bushland and newish huts.
So at least when we fought in SWA (yes I know it is Namibia) we still managed to leave with our integrity in tact. Not so for BloemSmallTeaTimeExec……

End of comments.

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