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The Real Cost of US War in Afghanistan

With uncertainty over how the Taliban intend to rule the country and deal with the growing list of challenges ahead, the precarious situation facing the Afghans might not be over anytime soon. 

With uncertainty over how the Taliban intend to rule the country and deal with the growing list of challenges ahead, the precarious situation facing the Afghans might not be over anytime soon. 

As the United States finally withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, and the Taliban tighten their hold over the country, the future appears uncertain for the 40 million Afghan residents. Despite the official end of the war, the country continues to be plagued with violence – a situation aggravated by the embarrassing collapse of the US-backed Kabul government and the meek surrender by its armed forces to the Taliban.

The past two decades have witnessed some progress in Afghanistan. However, at the end of the war, the US has little to show for its taxpayers’ money diverted to fund the longest war in its history. On the end hand, huge costs have been sustained by the various stakeholders drawn into the war.    

The massive losses sustained by the Americans are no secret. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the war in Afghanistan has cost the US over $2.23 trillion. This is not a one-time expenditure either; the huge debt incurred by the US to finance the war would require servicing over several decades.

Even if no further war is fought by the US, the total interest payments for its war-related debt shall amount to $6.5 trillion by 2050. This financial strain is in addition to the thousands of US and NATO troops killed or wounded in Afghanistan. An estimated 300,000 US troops suffered from mental problems after serving in war zones like Afghanistan, according to a 2008 American study. 

The real cost of the War on Terror, however, has been borne by the people of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The widely quoted figure of 174,000 Afghan deaths, resulting directly from war, is largely understated for two reasons.

Firstly, civilian deaths in the non-US-controlled territories of Afghanistan were often not reported or reliably estimated. Secondly, the above figure does not take into account the tens of thousands of indirect deaths from the war, caused due to displacement, destruction of infrastructure, food shortages, malnutrition, and increased vulnerability to disease. Afghanistan has suffered heavily from the violence, with civilians frequently “killed by bombs, bullets, fire, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and drones,” according to the Costs of War project.

At the time the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it threatened neighbouring Pakistan to help the US in its war or else “be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age” – as recounted by Pakistan’s then-President, Pervez Musharraf. Since being bullied into this war, Pakistan has suffered heavily from terrorism, with the attacks ranging from routine suicide bombings to a school massacre in 2014 that killed at least 134 children.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, recently described the War on Terror as responsible for over 70,000 deaths and $150 billion economic losses in his country. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Pakistan has refused to host further US bases or facilitate any US military intervention in Afghanistan.

The Afghan economy has also been dilapidated by the war, especially over the past decade. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan’s GDP per capita has fallen from $642 in 2012 to $509 in 2020. With nearly half the Afghan population living below the national poverty line, the positive impact of foreign aid appears largely offset by the effects of the war.

Corruption has been rampant among government officials over the past two decades; Afghanistan is ranked 165 out of 179 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2020. The unemployment rate remains double-digit – a trend continuing for many years. 

Contrary to what some media outlets might portray, there was a strong element of distrust between the Afghan people and the foreign forces there. For instance, in a shocking episode during 2012, a US soldier went on a shooting spree in rural Kandahar, killing 16 residents, including nine children, before setting their bodies on fire. Another incident involved US soldiers burning about a hundred copies of the Quran, which sparked riots and violent protests across Afghanistan.

An investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) found the US troops guilty of “torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence” in Afghanistan. In response, the US imposed economic sanctions and travel restrictions in 2020 on the ICC investigators who exposed these crimes. 

The recent surge in violence in Afghanistan is worrying indeed. While the Kabul airport massacre has shocked everyone, it is far from being an isolated attack. Over the past year or so, terrorist attacks in Kabul have targeted the maternity ward of a hospital, a girls’ school, a university, mosques, bazaars, and transport facilities, killings hundreds of civilians.

In addition to the millions of Afghan refugees that have poured into Pakistan, Iran, and other countries since the US invasion, UNHCR estimates that around 270,000 Afghans were internally displaced in the first half of 2021 alone. Moreover, civilian casualties rose by 29 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the previous year, with women and children increasingly being among the victims. 

The US failure in Afghanistan is evident not just from the return of the Taliban, but also from terrorist groups such as ISIS establishing a stronghold there right under the nose of the US military. The Afghan people have, unfortunately, lost an entire generation to the War on Terror and the ensuing violence.

With uncertainty over how the Taliban intend to rule the country and deal with the growing list of challenges ahead, the precarious situation facing the Afghans might not be over anytime soon. 



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