The Afghanistan War was the longest war in American history. Launched in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks to punish and destroy al-Qaida, this punitive operation quickly spiraled out of control into a never-ending nation-building quagmire that consumed American resources and lives for two decades.
To understand and learn from the war as a whole, it is important to examine what went right, what mistakes were made, the total cost of the war in dollars and lives, and what could have been done differently.
What did the U.S. do right in the war in Afghanistan?
The U.S. was justified in launching military operations into Afghanistan after September 11. In response to the terrorist attacks and thousands killed, it was right to cripple the al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan, ensure the organization could no longer initiate terror attacks against the U.S., and punish the Taliban for harboring such bad actors.
These core objectives were quickly achieved, and in time U.S. forces killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The operations in Afghanistan, and later over-the-horizon strikes on terrorists such as long-time al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, demonstrated that counter-terrorism operations do not require the presence of permanent ground troops to eliminate credible threats to the U.S.
Once core al-Qaida was crippled and the Taliban toppled, the U.S. should have begun drawing down our troops. However, the mission in Afghanistan quickly morphed into something much larger and unsustainable than it ever should have been.
What did the U.S. do wrong in Afghanistan?
The essential error of the Afghanistan War stemmed from the impossibility of the U.S. being able to restructure Afghan society in our own image.
The aim of the war evolved from the swift destruction of America’s avowed enemies, to building a mini-United States in a country with a history and culture completely different from our own. Establishing a liberal democracy in America’s image was never going to work in a country with a history of deep political, cultural divisions between Kabul and rural areas.
After the American withdrawal, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report: What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction that is at times surreal in what it reveals about American attempts to reengineer Afghan society.
Despite spending tens of billions of dollars to “modernize” the country, American planners often lacked even the most elementary knowledge of the situation. SIGAR notes many absurd instances of incompetent and costly construction projects where even a cursory examination of topography was neglected.
American planners were even less adept at navigating Afghanistan’s cultural terrain. The report notes, “the laws that emerged from the post-Taliban state building effort were drafted by foreign advisors with only limited involvement of their Afghan counterparts.”
The government spent over a billion dollars to erect a new “modern” justice system. Unfortunately, this system turned out to be so bureaucratic and slow that Afghans turned to the Taliban for dispute arbitration instead.
The report notes that “rarely did U.S. officials have even a mediocre understanding of the environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions.”
However, in reality, the lack of information and awareness about the situation was to some degree intentional, as the report explains:
Many mistakes were borne from a willful disregard for information that may have been available. After all, in many cases, the US government’s very purpose was to usher in an orderly revolution that would replace existing Afghan social systems with western or “modern” systems. If the intention was to build institutions from scratch, understanding and working within the country’s traditional systems was unnecessary.
Throughout the war, massive, well-intentioned inflows of U.S. aid regularly failed to achieve their purpose, instead enabling and exacerbating patterns of corruption throughout the Afghan government, damaging its legitimacy in the eyes of most Afghans.
With such an approach it is little wonder that decades of effort and tens of billions of dollars later the result was failure.
Effects of the war in Afghanistan
After 20 years of war, the accumulated costs in blood and treasure are difficult to wrap one’s mind around, given that the Taliban immediately reassumed power upon American withdrawal with little resistance from the Afghan government.
The Cost of War Project at Brown University estimates that from the commencement of hostilities until the end of fiscal year 2022, the war has cost $2.313 trillion dollars.
This does not count the future costs associated with the war, such as providing health care for U.S. soldiers injured in the war, or paying interest on the debt accumulated by the U.S. government to pay for it. Future veterans’ care alone is estimated to cost an additional $1.1 trillion by 2050, with trillions more dollars in interest payments on war-related debt expected.
Of course, the cost of war is never just in time and dollars. Thousands of Americans have died in this war including 2,324 U.S. service members, six Department of Defense civilians, and 3,917 American contractors. And that’s not to mention the tens of thousands of Afghanistan civilian deaths and millions who were displaced.
And the number of U.S. military casualties is only part of the calculation of American lives lost from this war.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that between 2001 and 2019 the suicide rate among veterans increased a disturbing 35.9 percent (nearly three percent more than the civilian population), from 23.3 to 31.6 per 100,000.
Altogether, over 30,000 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their own lives. The cost in human suffering to these veterans and their loved ones is ultimately impossible to calculate.
Was it right for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan?
A look at the missteps and total cost of war in Afghanistan may drive us to question whether we should have left or stuck it out so that all the losses had not been in vain. And while the American withdrawal was a chaotic and disorganized mess, the reality is that no good would have come from a continued physical presence in country.
The speed at which the Taliban was able to take the country back is evidence enough that the U.S. was never going to build even a short-lived democracy in Afghanistan. Despite 20 years of effort and tens of billions of dollars, the Afghan military and government did not have the support of the Afghan people or the will to effectively continue the fight against the Taliban, rapidly crumbling without American support.
The only alternative to withdrawal for the U.S. was to continue the costly open-ended presence with no end goal in sight—a presence that could have cost another $49 billion over the next year alone.
Had the U.S. forces stayed, attacks against Americans would have increased as a truce negotiated with the Taliban to facilitate our withdrawal ended, necessitating even more American troops to be deployed.
The withdrawal could hardly have been executed worse, but the corrupt and ineffective Afghan government’s collapse is unlikely to have been averted no matter how long the U.S. stayed.
Foreign policy realism is in our national interest
Whether the naïve goal of rebuilding Afghan society from the ground up stemmed from hubris or earnest attempts to help the people of Afghanistan, such a radical social reconstruction campaign was entirely divorced from American national interests.
Had the war been narrowly focused on punitively degrading the operational capacity of terror groups, rather than engaging in an unprecedented campaign to restructure a complex society, much suffering, expense, and loss of life could have been avoided.
America is best served by a foreign policy based on what is in our own national interests. Military actions and engagements must fit that standard. If Afghanistan teaches the country and foreign policy establishment anything, it is that straying for a foreign policy of realism and restraint leads down a road of mission creep and thousands of lost lives.
The Iraq War quickly followed the war in Afghanistan, but failed to meet the standard of defending vital American interests. Read about the blunder and last impact of the war in Iraq.