The true cost of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, in 5 charts
On Oct. 7, 2001, a U.S.-led coalition launched air strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan. Hours later, President George W. Bush addressed a nation still reeling from the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We did not ask for this mission, but we will fulfill it. The name of today’s military operation is Enduring Freedom,” he said. “In the months ahead, our patience will be one of our strengths—patience with the long waits that will result from tighter security; patience and understanding that it will take time to achieve our goals; patience in all the sacrifices that may come.”
Nearly two decades later, the U.S. military—now serviced by some young men and women who were born after the 2001 attacks occurred—withdrew from Taliban-held Afghanistan. Patience had worn thin.
“I’m now the fourth American President to preside over war in Afghanistan. Two Democrats and two Republicans,” President Joe Biden said in a national address this week. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth President. I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference…I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.”
Just how much time, dollars, and lives have been spent on the “forever war”? The war in Afghanistan is the longest the U.S. has engaged in, but not by a lot. Involvement in Iraq—which also followed the 9/11 attacks—and Vietnam were similarly long and both ended in similar, confused stalemates with no winners to be declared except perhaps those who invested in defense technology.
The idea of the ongoing war in Afghanistan was promoted by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In December 2001, two months after invading the country, he denied a plea by the Taliban to broker a surrender. “I do not think there will be a negotiated end to the situation that’s unacceptable to the United States,” he said at the time.
Upon his exit from government in 2006 he warned against pulling out. “It may well be comforting to some to consider graceful exits from the agonies and, indeed, the ugliness of combat. But the enemy thinks differently,” he said. Rumsfeld passed away this summer, before the war ended.
Meanwhile, military deaths racked up, though nowhere near the level they had in past wars. The advent of drone technology and other robotic warfare led to a significant decrease in military casualties. The nature of the enduring war, which centered largely on nation-building, led to a restructured military with less focus on fighting and more on training the Afghan army. Still, the lack of massive American casualties allowed the war to rage on in the background of American life, largely unnoticed.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan, however, were extraordinarily high. An estimated 75,000 Afghan military and police officers perished in direct war deaths and an additional estimated 71,334 civilians died directly because of war. It’s difficult to give exact numbers because the Pentagon changed its policy in 2001 and stopped compiling or releasing civilian body counts.
The true costs of the war to the U.S. are similarly difficult to measure, but they likely neared $1 trillion. A large portion of those costs—about $83 billion—came from building and supplying Afghan forces with U.S. military weapons. After the U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of Afghanistan’s military, a significant portion of those weapons, guns, helicopters, and vehicles fell into the hands of the Taliban.
Wartime spending ate up a significant portion of the federal budget each year, and the United States currently spends more on defense than the next 11 countries combined. By those calculations, the United States spent about $136 million dollars per day on the war every day for nearly 20 years, as well as a total of about $25,000 for each of the 40 million people living in Afghanistan. And these costs may be low estimates. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates the true cost to be closer to $2.26 trillion when future veteran care and interest on war borrowing are included.
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