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What did the 20-year war cost the people of Afghanistan?

The United States of America waged war against Afghanistan for 20 years, invading the country right after the 9/11 attacks on 11 September 2001. For two decades, the U.S. occupied this Asian country with its gigantic military presence. They attacked Afghanistan with the supposed aim of destroying terror links in the country and ending the ruling Taliban’s presence – who had been accused of helping Al Qaeda terrorists linked to the 9/11 attacks.

Yet in the eyes of many, this war was a tragic, catastrophic failure that killed 10s of thousands of innocent people, created a heartbreaking refugee crisis, cost over a trillion dollars, and resulted in nothing. Nothing was achieved in this war. Terror didn’t stop. In fact, recent events could lead to its increase. The Taliban, an Islamist group, control Afghanistan as they did prior to the invasion – but this time is stronger and more influential.

The U.S. spent unbelievable amounts of money. Scores of civilians, including children, died. And Afghanistan has been destroyed. It is difficult to see what good the war resulted in.

In figures reported by AP News (based on data from Harvard University and Brown University) more than 47,000 Afghani civilians were killed in the war, Almost 450 aid workers died, over 70 journalists lost their lives, and more than 65,000 Afghan military and security officers were killed. More than 6000 U.S. military troops and contractors also died in this war. In total, almost 200,000 people lost their lives.

There are 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees worldwide

That’s the human cost. It does not account for the scores of properties destroyed, lives ruined, people displaced, injuries caused, and permanent mental and physical trauma inflicted on the people of Afghanistan.

Additionally, the war has displaced millions of Afghanis and created a global refugee crisis. Families have had their homes destroyed and been forced to evacuate the violence. 2.2 million Afghanis have had to flee and take refuge in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran, while 3.5 million Afghanis are internally displaced within their own nation. There are 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees worldwide. 

Civilians have suffered the most in this war. Innocent men, women, and children who had no part in the devastating conflict faced unimaginable loss. They have been killed by gunfire, bombs, airstrikes, missiles, drone strikes, hidden explosives, and in targeted attacks or as collateral damage.    

When the U.S. relaxed its rules of engagement for airstrikes in 2017, less care was taken when launching airstrikes on supposed targets, leading to an increase in civilian fatalities. 40% of civilian deaths between 2016 to 2020 from U.S. airstrikes were children, according to data from Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). In the past 14 years, about five children every day were killed or maimed in Afghanistan, as revealed by Save the Children International in November 2020.

The U.S. has committed war crimes in Afghanistan, and the list of civilians killed by the U.S. military is huge, with airstrikes killing families and children in their homes. But the most fitting example is also unfortunately the most recent. The U.S. launched a drone strike in Kabul in August 2021, supposedly targeting terrorists. Instead, they killed 10 innocent civilians: an aid worker and 9 members of his family, including 7 young children. The U.S. later admitted its mistake and blamed an intelligence failure.

Thousands of vulnerable Afghanis… have been left behind

“We apologise, and we will endeavour to learn from this horrible mistake,” U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said after the attack. But as tragic as this mistake is, the deaths of 10 innocent family members does not seem to have had any consequences or led to any changes in U.S. foreign policy. 

“I don’t think you should draw any conclusions about our ability to strike in Afghanistan against ISIS-K targets in the future based on this particular strike,” said the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie. 

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves several tragic marks – including the scenes witnessed at an airport in Kabul when desperate Afghanis tried to flee the country by clutching onto an accelerating plane on the runway. Thousands of vulnerable Afghanis – including interpreters, journalists, and aid workers who helped the U.S. – have been left behind with little clarity on what will happen to them, and many fearing violence. They feel betrayed.

As well as direct military casualties, Afghanistan’s people have also suffered indirectly from the horrors of war. According to the United Nations, about a third of people in Afghanistan are malnourished – including 50% of children under 5. Little access to clean drinking water or healthcare and medications worsen the quality of life. The war worsened poverty, environmental degradation, and general living standards in the country. 

Afghanistan is also facing an economic crisis. “There’s no theft or crime anymore. (But) there’s no work and no money,” said an Afghan woman to the BBC. The poverty rate is at 72%, and is expected to increase to 97-98% within a year according to the UN. People are struggling to survive and are having to sell their personal possessions to afford food and necessities. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cut off finance to Afghanistan, and its foreign-held assets were frozen by the U.S. – directly impacting civilians and exacerbating poverty. 

The financial costs of the war are staggering. Around $2 trillion was spent on the war by the U.S. Billions of these dollars have been lost to waste and fraud. According to Forb​​es, the war cost the U.S. $300 million every day for 20 years. Furthermore, CNBC reports that since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia.

We always knew in our hearts that we would conquer and liberate the country

– A Taliban Commander

However, the invasion did succeed in making rich companies even richer. Weapons manufacturers and defence companies had a fantastic run throughout the War and profited the most, according to research by Brown University. The Pentagon relied heavily on private defence corporations, which made vast amounts of profit. The ‘War on Terror’ resulted in huge amounts of military spending by the U.S. government, mostly for private companies. Billions of dollars were given to major weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and other war profiteers.

Now that the U.S. has left Afghanistan destroyed, miserable, and fending for itself, the country transitions to life under the Taliban. “We always knew in our hearts that we would conquer and liberate the country,” a Taliban commander told a BBC reporter.

But many live in fear of the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s with an iron fist and were accused of scores of human rights abuses, particularly regarding women’s and minorities’ rights. In the 90s, the Taliban called for punishments like public executions. Men had to grow beards and women had to wear the burka, a full-body covering. TV, music, and films were banned, and girls 10 and over were discouraged from going to school.  

However, there may be some hope this time if the Taliban stick to their internationally broadcast promises of respecting women’s and minorities’ rights. These include granting amnesty and not seeking reprisals against those they deem to be foreign helpers, and ruling with more peace and security than before. 

For now, the Taliban have all the power

But people remain cautious and sceptical. These promises seem to be fading quickly amid reports of Taliban operatives killing and torturing civilians and ethnic minorities, and going door-to-door searching for people believed to have worked with the U.S.-backed Afghan government or Western forces. Reprisal killings are feared to have occurred, and women have been excluded from the public sphere, including government and education.

“The Taliban have vowed to respect women’s rights but women’s rights are disappearing from the landscape,” said the outgoing Afghani government’s ambassador to the United Nations

The Taliban deny carrying out such abuses and say they are supporting women’s rights in an Islamic context, and that the new interim government will consult the population on an inclusive future system. This remains to be seen.

For now, the Taliban have all the power. Women are afraid to return to education or their jobs, and some are not allowed to. Afghanis who helped the U.S. and other foreign forces fear for their safety. The warmongers responsible roam freely. And the war has left behind death, destruction, poverty, and grave wounds for Afghanistan.


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