The United States has formally begun withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan, bringing its longest war nearer to an end but leaving an uncertain future for the fragile democracy.
- Afghanistan has suffered the greatest cost out of the war
- The US has invested more than $2.2 trillion in the war effort
- People fear the withdrawal will reverse the small gains Afghan society has won
While US officials on the ground have said the withdrawal is already a work in progress, Washington has made an issue of a May 1 commencement because the date was a previous deadline the Trump administration agreed with the Taliban.
NATO troops have also begun the withdrawal, which began on Thursday.
The two-decade-long conflict in Afghanistan started in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a war which then went on to become America’s longest.
Following President Joe Biden’s declaration earlier this year that he was going to end the US’s “forever war”, there has been widespread reckoning over the war’s lost lives and colossal expenditure.
Twenty years on, just how much has the war cost the US and Afghanistan?
The cost in lives
Afghans have paid the highest price.
Since 2001, at least 47,245 civilians have been killed in the war as of mid-April, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which documents the hidden costs of America’s War on Terror.
Gun and bomb attacks targeting civilians surged to previously unseen heights since the intra-Afghan peace negotiations opened in Qatar last year, according to United Nations observers.
They have said the conflict also killed a total of 72 journalists and 444 aid workers.
The Afghan government keeps the toll among its soldiers a secret, to avoid undermining morale, but Costs of War estimates the conflict has killed between 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops.
The war has forced 2.7 million Afghans to flee abroad, mostly to Iran, Pakistan and Europe, according to UN figures. Another four million are displaced within the country, which has a total population of 36 million.
A total of 2,442 US troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded in the war since 2001, according to the Defense Department. It’s estimated that over 3,800 US private security contractors have been killed. The Pentagon does not track their deaths.
The conflict also has killed 1,144 personnel from the 40-nation NATO coalition that trained Afghan forces over the years, according to a tally kept by the website iCasualties.
The remaining 7,000 allied troops also will withdraw by Mr Biden’s September 11 deadline.
The cost in dollars
The US has spent a stunning total of $US2.26 trillion ($2.93 trillion) on a dizzying array of expenses, according to the Costs of War project.
The Defense Department’s latest 2020 report said war-fighting costs totalled $US815.7 billion over the years.
That covers the operating costs of the US military in Afghanistan, everything from fuel and food to Humvees, weapons and ammunition, from tanks and armoured vehicles to aircraft carriers and airstrikes.
Although a US-led coalition first invaded the country to retaliate against Al-qaeda and rout its hosts, the Taliban, the US and NATO soon pivoted to a broader remit: nation-building on a massive scale.
Washington has poured over $US143 billion into that goal since 2002, according to the latest figures from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Of that, $US88 billion went to training, equipping and funding Afghan military and police forces.
Another $US36 billion was spent on reconstruction projects, education and infrastructure like dams and highways, the SIGAR report said. Another $US4.1 billion has gone to humanitarian aid for refugees and disasters. The campaign to deter Afghans from selling heroin around the world cost over $US9 billion.
Unlike with other conflicts in American history, the US borrowed heavily to fund the war in Afghanistan and has paid some $US530 billion in interest. It has also paid $US296 billion in medical and other care for veterans, according to Costs of War.
It will continue to pay both those expenses for years to come.
But despite the costly investment, many metrics haven’t exactly correlated to the outcomes Washington may have had in mind.
Now the Taliban has increased the amount of territory it controls, national unemployment hovers at 25 per cent while the poverty rate rose to 47 per cent in 2020 compared with 36 per cent in 2007.
“We invested too much with too little to show for it,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation.
The cost of leaving
Although few want to prolong the war interminably, many fear its final end may jeopardise Afghanistan’s modest gains in health, education and women’s rights, made during the war’s early years.
Since 2001, life expectancy has increased to 64 years from 56, World Bank figures show. Maternal mortality has more than halved. Opportunities for education have grown, with the literacy rate rising 8 per cent to roughly 43 per cent. Life in cities has improved, with 89 per cent of residents having access to clean water, compared to 16 per cent before the war.
Child marriage has declined by 17 per cent, according to UN data. Girls’ participation in primary school has nearly doubled, and more women have entered college and served in Parliament.
But as the US and its allies pull out, leaving the Afghan government vulnerable to further Taliban threats, some are fearful about how long the country can hold onto the small gains won after the US invasion.
“For better or worse, the US has a serious stabilising presence right now, and once that’s gone there’s going to be a power vacuum,” said Michael Callen, an Afghanistan economy expert at the London School of Economics.
AFP / AP