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Afghanistan insurgency: Cost of the war on terror




President Joe Biden’s decision to terminate the military intervention in Afghanistan has widely been criticised by commentators and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Both right- and left-wing commentators have excoriated his decision for different reasons. writes Vidya S Sharma Ph.D.

In my article entitled, Afghanistan pull out: Biden made the right call, I showed how their criticism does not stand scrutiny.

In this article, I wish to examine the cost of this 20-years long war in Afghanistan to the US at three levels: (a) in monetary terms; (b) socially at home; (c) in strategic terms. By strategic terms, I mean to what extent America’s involvement in Afghanistan (and Iraq) has diminished its position as a global superpower. And more importantly, what are the chances of the US reclaiming its previous status as the sole superpower?

Though I would generally confine myself to the cost of the insurgency in Afghanistan, I would also discuss briefly the costs of the second war in Iraq waged by President George W Bush under the pretext of finding the (hidden) weapons of mass destruction or WMDs that the UN team of 700 inspectors under the leadership of Hans Blix could not find. The Iraq war, soon after the US army had occupied Iraq, also suffered from ‘mission creep’ and transmuted into the war against insurgents in Iraq.

Cost of 20-years of counterinsurgency

Though very real, in some ways more tragic, yet I would not deal with the cost of war in terms of the number of civilians killed, injured and maimed, their properties destroyed, internally displaced persons and refugees, psychological trauma (some times lifelong) suffered by children and adults, disruption to children’s education, etc..

Let me begin with the cost of war in terms of dead and injured soldiers. In the war and ensuing counterinsurgency in Afghanistan (first officially called, Operation Enduring Freedom and then to indicate the global nature of the war on terrorism it was re-christened as ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’), the US lost 2445 military service members including 13 U.S. troops who were killed by ISIS-K in the Kabul airport attack on Aug. 26, 2021. This figure of 2445 also includes 130 or so US military personnel killed in other insurgency locations).


In addition, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) lost 18 of its operatives in Afghanistan. Further, there were 1,822 civilian contractor fatalities. These were mainly ex-servicemen who were now working privately.

Furthermore, by the end of August 2021, 20,722 members of the US defence forces has been wounded. This figure includes 18 wounded when ISIS (K) attacked near on 26 August.

Neta C Crawford, professor of Political Science at Boston University and a Co-Director of the “Costs of War Project” at Brown University, this month published a paper where she calculates that wars conducted in reaction to the 9/11 attacks by the US over the last 20 years have cost it $5.8 trillion (see Figure 1). Of this about $2.2 trillion is the cost of fighting the war and ensuing insurgency in Afghanistan. The rest is overwhelmingly the cost of fighting in the Iraq war launched by neo-cons on the pretext of finding the missing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

Crawford writes: “This includes the estimated direct and indirect costs of spending in the United States post-9/11 war zones, homeland security efforts for counterterrorism, and interest payments on war borrowing.”

This figure of $5.8 trillion does not include the costs for medical care and disability payments for veterans. These were calculated by Harvard University’s Linda Bilmes. She found that medical care and disability payments for veterans, over the next 30 years, are likely cost the US Treasury more than $2.2 trillion.

Figure 1: Cumulative cost of war-related to September 11 attacks

Source: Neta C. Crawford, Boston University and Co-Director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University

Thus the total cost of the war on terror comes to the US taxpayers comes to $8 trillion. Lyndon Johnson increased the taxes to fight the Vietnam War. It is also worth remembering that all this war effort has been financed by debt. Both Presidents George W Bush and Donald Trump cut personal and corporate taxes, especially at the top end. Thus added to the budget deficit instead of taking steps to repair the nation’s balance sheet.

As mentioned in my article, Afghanistan pull out: Biden made the right call, Congress nearly unanimously voted to go to war. It gave a blank cheque to President Bush, ie to hunt down terrorists wherever they may be on this planet.

On 20 September 2001, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President Bush said: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Consequently, Figure 2 below shows the locations where the US has been engaged in fighting insurgencies in various countries since 2001.

Figure 2: Worldwide locations where the US engaged in fighting the war on terror

Source: Watson Institute, Brown University

Cost of the Afghanistan war to the US allies

Figure 3: Cost of Afghanistan War: NATO allies

CountryTroops Contributed*Fatalities**Military Spending ($ Billion)***Foreign Aid***

Source: Jason Davidson and Cost of War Project, Brown University

* Top European Allies Troop contributors to Afghanistan as of February 2011 (when it peaked)

** Fatalities in Afghanistan, October 2001-September 2017

*** All figures are for years 2001-18

This is not all. The Afghanistan war had cost the US’s NATO allies dearly too. Jason Davidson of the University of Mary Washington published a paper in May 2021. I summarise his findings for the top 5 allies (all NATO members) in a tabular form (see Figure 3 above).

Australia was the biggest non- NATO contributor to the US’s war effort in Afghanistan. It lost 41 military personnel and in financial terms, it cost Australia overall around $10 billion.

The figures shown in Figure 3 do not show the cost to the allies of looking after and settling refugees and migrants and the recurring cost of enhanced domestic security operations.

Cost of war: Lost employment opportunities

As mentioned above, the spending and appropriations relating to the cost of war from FY2001 to FY2019 come to about $5 trillion. In annual terms, it comes to $260 billion. This is on top of the budget for the Pentagon.

Heidi Garrett-Peltier of the University of Massachusetts has done some excellent work determining extra jobs these allocations created in the military-industrial complex and how many extra jobs would have been created if these funds were spent in other areas.

Garrett-Peltier found that “the military creates 6.9 jobs per $1 million, while the clean energy industry and infrastructure each support 9.8 jobs, healthcare supports 14.3, and education supports 15.2.”

In other words, with the same amount of fiscal stimulus, the Federal Government would have created 40% more jobs in renewable energy and infrastructure areas than in the military-industrial complex. And if this money were spent on health care or education, it would have created extra 100% and 120% jobs respectively.

Garrett-Peltier concludes that “the Federal Government has lost the opportunity to create 1.4 million jobs on average”.

Cost of war – Loss of morale, rundown equipment and distorted armed force structure

The US army, the biggest and the most powerful army in the world, along with its NATO allies, fought with uneducated and ill-equipped (running around in their old Toyota utility trucks with Kalashnikov rifles and some basic expertise in planting IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices) insurgents for 20 years and could not subdue them.

This has taken its toll on the morale of the US defence personnel. Further, it has dented the US’s confidence in itself and its belief in its values and exceptionalism.

Furthermore, both the Iraq War II and the 20 years-long Afghanistan war (both started by neo-cons under George W Bush) has distorted the US force structure.

When discussing deployment, the generals often talk of the rule of three, ie, if 10,000 troops have been deployed in a theatre of war then it means there are 10, 000 servicemen who have recently come back from deployment, and yet another 10,000 are being trained and getting ready to go there.

The successive US Pacific commanders have been demanding more resources and watching the US Navy shrink to levels deemed unacceptable. But their requests for more resources were routinely denied by Pentagon to meet the demands of the generals fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fighting the 20-years long war has also meant two more things: the US Armed Forces are suffering from war-weariness and were allowed to expand to meet America’s war commitments. This necessary expansion came at the expense of the US Air Force and Navy. It is the latter two that will be required to meet the challenge of China, the defence of Taiwan, Japan and S Korea.

Lastly, the US used its extremely expansive and high-tech equipment, eg, F22s and F35s aeroplanes, to fight insurgency in Afghanistan, ie, to locate and kill Kalashnikov-wielding insurgents roaming around in rundown Toyotas. Consequently, much of the equipment used in Afghanistan is not in good condition and needs serious maintenance and repairs. This repair bill alone will run into billions of dollars.

The cost of war does not end there. In Afghanistan and Iraq alone (ie, not counting fatalities in Yemen, Syria, and other theatres of insurgency), between 2001 to 2019, 344 and journalists were killed. The same figures was humanitarian workers and the contractors employed by the US Government were 487 and 7402 respectively.

U.S. service members who have committed suicide is four times greater than those killed in combat in the post-9/11 wars. Nobody knows how many parents, spouses, children, siblings, and friends are carrying emotional scars because they lost someone in the 9/11 wars or he/she was maimed or committed suicide.

Even 17 years after the Iraq war began, we still do know the true civilian death toll in that country. The same is true for Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and other theatres of insurgency.

Strategic costs to the US

This preoccupation with the war on terror has meant that the US took eyes off the developments taking place elsewhere. This oversight allowed China to emerge as a serious competitor of the US not only economically but also militarily. This is the strategic cost, the US has paid for its 20 years-long obsession with the war on terror.

I discuss the topic of how China has benefitted from the US’s obsession with the war on terror in detail in my forthcoming article, “China was the biggest beneficiary of the “forever” war in Afghanistan”.

Let me very briefly state the enormity of the task ahead of the US.

In 2000, discussing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighting capabilities, the Pentagon wrote that it was focused on fighting land-based warfare. It had large ground, air, and naval forces but they were mostly obsolete. Its conventional missiles were generally of short-range and modest accuracy. The PLA’s emergent cyber capabilities were rudimentary.

Now fast forward to 2020. This is how the Pentagon assessed the PLA’s capabilities:

Beijing will likely seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military. Over the last two decades, China has tenaciously worked to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect.

China now has the second-largest research and development budget in the world (behind the US) for science and technology. It is ahead of the US in many areas.

China has used well-honed methods that it mastered to modernise its industrial sector to catch up with the US. It has acquired technology from countries like France, Israel, Russia and Ukraine. It has reverse-engineered the components. But above all, it has relied on industrial espionage. To mention just two instances: its cyber-thieves stole blueprints of F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters and the US navy’s most advanced anti-ship cruise missiles. But it has also carried genuine innovation.

China is now a world leader in laser-based submarine detection, hand-held laser guns, particle teleportation, quantum radar. And, of course, in cyber-theft, as we all know. In other words, in many areas, China now has a technological edge over the West.

Fortunately, there seems to be a realisation among politicians of both the side of the aisle that China will become the dominant power if the US did not put its house in order very soon. The US has a window of 15-20 years to reassert its dominance in both spheres: the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It relies on its air force and ocean-going navy to exert its influence abroad.

The US needs to take some steps to remedy the situation urgently. Congress must bring some stability to the Pentagon budget.

The Pentagon also needs to do some soul searching. For example, the cost of the development of the F-35 stealth jet was not only well above budget and behind time. It is also maintenance-intensive, unreliable and some of its software still malfunctions. It needs to improve its project management capabilities so that new weapon systems can be delivered on time and within budget.

Biden doctrine and China

Biden and his administration seem to be fully aware of the threat posed by China to the US security interest and dominance in the Western Pacific ocean. Whatever steps Biden has taken in foreign affairs are meant to prepare the US to confront China.

I discuss the Biden doctrine in detail in a separate article. Bur it would suffice here to mention a few steps taken by the Biden Administration to prove my contention.

First of all, it is worth remembering that Biden has not lifted any of the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on China. He has not made any concessions to China on trade.

Biden reversed Trump’s decision and has agreed to extend the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). He has done so primarily because he does not want to take on both China and Russia at the same time.

Both right- and left-wing commentators criticised Biden for the way he decided to pull the troops out of Afghanistan. By not continuing this war, the Biden Administration will save nearly $2 trillion. It is more than sufficient to pay for his domestic infrastructure programmes. Those programmes are not only needed to modernise the crumbling US infrastructure assets but will create many jobs in rural and regional towns in the US. Just as his emphasis on renewable energy will do.


Vidya S. Sharma advises clients on country risks and technology-based joint ventures. He has contributed numerous articles for such prestigious newspapers as: The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (Melbourne), The Australian Financial Review, The Economic Times (India), The Business Standard (India), EU Reporter (Brussels), East Asia Forum (Canberra), The Business Line (Chennai, India), The Hindustan Times (India), The Financial Express (India), The Daily Caller (US. He can be contacted at: [email protected].

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