Afghanistan: Longest War in U.S. History
• $4.5 trillion and the war is far from over.
By Richard Walker —
The war in Afghanistan, now the longest in United States history, has become a forgotten war that has cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. As the fighting grinds on, there are increasing reports that U.S. military leadership is in disarray, leaving soldiers, who are stationed there, wondering what they are even doing in the mountainous country.
According to a recent Pentagon report, troops, numbering approximately 10,000, are unclear about their role or how to defeat an enemy that is growing in power and now controls the majority of the country.
According to top U.S. military officials, not only is al Qaeda back in the mix, planning operations with the Taliban, but the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has emerged as an additional threat.
The combat mission by all accounts is no longer clear. One of the stark ironies of the Afghan conflict is that, despite the 2014 declaration by President Barack Hussein Obama that the Afghanistan war was “coming to a responsible conclusion,” fighting has continued unabated.
In addition, according to experts on the war, such as Bill Roggio, the editor of the online blog “The Long War Journal,” which tracks the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Taliban “probably either controls or heavily influences half of the country.”
It is worth noting that the number of U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, said to be 10,000, matches exactly the figure for the U.S. force there in 2002-2003 before it ballooned to 150,000. What has never been made clear in what are being called the post 9-11 wars—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq—is just how many mercenaries, known as “contractors,” have been on the ground in any given year.
Sadly, the Afghan war is nowhere near over, so it is important to reflect on what it has cost so far in terms of human life and dollars.
The coalition fatalities total is 3,517 of which 2,281 are U.S. service personnel. The U.S. wounded total stands at 17,764. It is worth noting that the numbers for mercenaries, or “contractors,” killed and wounded are unavailable because the law does not require their deaths or injuries to be reported. Considering the very large number of contractor personnel known to have been in combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, some estimates have placed their death toll at 9,700. The true figure could well be double that. It would mean more contractors have died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq than coalition troops. Overall, the Iraq conflict has claimed the lives of 4,501 American combat troops with 32,223 wounded.
Texas has suffered the most dead and wounded service personnel from the post 9-11 wars of any state. With respect to Afghanistan, Texas has seen 185 fatalities and 976 wounded. Iraq claimed 420 dead and 3,230 wounded.
It is hard to be exact about the ongoing financial cost of the war in Afghanistan because Congress has never made efforts to streamline the levels of accountability necessary to accurately assess expenditures. Nevertheless, there have been credible studies that show both wars have cost $4.4 trillion. That total will rise by an estimated $9.7 trillion in interest charges in decades to come due to the fact the wars were launched on funds borrowed mostly from China. As much as $450 billion, if not a lot more, could be required for the Afghan war between now and 2020. Taking into account the vast amounts lost on waste and fraud, and the so-called spending on infrastructure, which was really money spent on the Afghan military—and likewise the Iraqi military—the true costs for both wars are likely to be much higher.
And how about Afghan civilians? While the Pentagon has a history of denying the true numbers of civilian deaths in its foreign wars, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University has put the total of civilians killed by direct violence of the wars, by all sides in both conflicts, at 370,000. However, it has stressed that the total is likely to be many times more if one includes the numbers of civilians who have died as a result of malnutrition, damaged infrastructure, and “environmental degradation.”
To understand what Afghanistan has become, it is worth considering what Qais Azimy, a senior journalist who has lived in the Afghan capital throughout the war, has to say. He believes the Afghan people have lost hope, and few have positive thoughts about the future.
“Many here feel the international community has lost interest in the country and that Afghan blood doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “The feeling of abandonment is snatching away any hope.”
A stark example of the chaos and lack of accountability for civilian deaths in Afghanistan is the U.S. bombing of a hospital in Kunduz on October 3, 2015, that left 42 doctors, nurses, patients, and orderlies dead. No one in the U.S. military has been able to explain why the bombing continued for an hour despite calls for it to stop. In the aftermath there was much finger-pointing with U.S. Special Forces blaming the Afghans for providing incorrect coordinates. The episode highlighted the confusion in the ranks of the U.S. military and the fact that the war with the Taliban has been intensifying.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.