We Must Investigate America’s Longest War
According to official estimates, the US expended a staggering $982 billion on the Afghanistan war effort. However, the Costs of War Project at Brown University assesses the true figure at an astronomical $2.26 trillion, nearly $1 trillion of which went toward the budget of the Defense Department’s Overseas Contingency Operations. A further $530 billion was interest on the money borrowed by the US government to fund the war.
Afghanistan, an eternally embattled, landlocked country of 38 million, has one of the lowest GDPs in the world ($21 billion), on par with that of Papua New Guinea. Its per capita GDP of $509 is a shade higher than Madagascar’s. Former president Ashraf Ghani said last year that 90% of the population of Afghanistan lived on less than $2 a day.
By any reckoning, the enormous US investment there — whether official or the Brown University estimate — should have helped pull the numerically manageable population out of poverty, uplifted the ravaged economy, vastly improved all indices of human development, and created a sound political, financial, administrative, and military framework. The resultant prosperity would have rendered internal terrorism less relevant and structured the resistance against the Taliban and its affiliates.
A splurge on that scale should have accomplished all the US had set out to achieve, and in far less time than two decades. After all, the Taliban and their allies were armed with little more than Kalashnikovs, shoulder-fired rockets, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and car bombs.
So where did all the money go?
As rifle-waving insurgents now take over an Afghanistan left shattered by the humiliating US retreat, they seem poised to mutilate the legacy of America’s longest and murkiest war. Central to the prolonged fortified presence of the most powerful army in the world in that impoverished country is the question of whether it achieved its objectives in a war that proved exorbitant in terms of both costs and lives.
At a news conference on July 8, President Joe Biden rejected the notion that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was inevitable following the US military withdrawal, expressing confidence that Ghani’s government and the reported 300,000 Afghan troops trained, armed, and compensated by the US (at a cost of $83 billion) would be able to overcome the worse-equipped, smaller Taliban forces.
Perhaps Biden was unaware of assessments by his own officials that a US troop withdrawal could lead to Taliban gains on the battlefield, as the Taliban were positioned more strongly than at any point since 2001, controlling half the country.
The number of US and coalition forces peaked at 140,000 in 2011, supplemented by the 300,000 Afghan troops. Yet the Americans were unable to ward off ragtag anarchists whose strength is now estimated at around 60,000 full-time fighters.
The military campaign in Afghanistan was launched on October 7, 2001, by President George W. Bush to avenge the unprecedented terror strikes on American soil a month earlier, on September 11. It sought to oust the Taliban, who had been in power in Afghanistan since 1996, and crush the Al-Qaeda terror network they supported and that was suspected of having perpetrated the attacks. The US reprisal led to the deaths of 2,448 American service members and 51,191 opposition fighters, including Taliban.
However, Brown University’s Costs of War project calculates that an additional 47,245 Afghan civilians, as well as 66,000-69,000 Afghan military and police who had no involvement with 9/11, perished in US operations. These are heavy costs and a heavier moral burden for Washington. The CIA also armed and funded Afghan militia groups that have been implicated in grave human rights abuses and killings of civilians. The turmoil has studded the land with unexploded bombs that slay and maim numberless Afghans annually, especially children.
In his remarks at the White House on August 16, Biden praised the US campaign in Afghanistan for severely degrading Al-Qaeda in that country. However, his own government assessed at the time that Al-Qaeda was still a major presence in Afghanistan and had sustained its decades-long ties with the Taliban. The Defense Intelligence Agency assessed last year that some Al-Qaeda members were “integrated into the Taliban’s forces and command structure.”
Biden defended the American withdrawal from Afghanistan by saying, “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.” However, the State Department’s January Fact Sheet on US relations with Afghanistan says, “In order to strengthen Afghanistan’s capabilities as a partner, and to improve the lives of the Afghan people, we continue to invest US resources to help Afghanistan improve its security, governance, institutions, and economy.”
Astonishingly, while in 2001 the US precipitated regime change in Afghanistan by overthrowing the Taliban for having harbored Al-Qaeda, it sought under President Trump to broker an interim “transitional” government that would include the Taliban leadership in the first direct peace negotiations between the Ghani regime and Taliban representatives in Qatar. President Ghani rejected the idea. The US had in fact held talks with the Taliban earlier, with the Afghan government unrepresented.
In a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, the Trump administration committed to a conditional withdrawal of military forces by May 2021 if the Taliban committed to prevent other groups, including Al-Qaeda, from acting against the US or its allies. UN sanctions monitors noted that the Taliban did not fulfill those commitments, as violence between them and the Afghan government increased and their links with Al-Qaeda remained intact.
During his August 16 remarks, Biden claimed, “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.” He left unsaid how his administration planned on executing those actions.
In June, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi maintained that his country (which neighbors Afghanistan and hosts the Taliban and assorted other terror outfits) would not provide any military base to the US for monitoring Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign forces from Kabul. “We have to see our interest,” he told local broadcaster Geo News. On September 2, America’s former ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, warned that China might move to take over the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and “use Pakistan to get stronger to go against India.”
Though the four US presidents who presided over the Afghan war were both Republican and Democrat, it is imperative that a Congressional investigation be held into the conduct of the campaign across its 20-year history, which left Afghanistan far poorer and more dangerous than it was when American troops showed up to set the house in order.
Sarosh Bana is Executive Editor of Business India in Mumbai; Regional Editor, Indo-Pacific Region, of the Germany-based publication Naval Forces; and Asia Correspondent of the Sydney-based cyber security journal Asia Pacific Security Magazine (APSM).
A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.