You are on page 1of 4

The war in Afghanistan has so far cost $33,000 per citizen.

And will
not end well.

Peter Apps is the executive director of PS21 and a veteran reporter. He

tweets @pete_apps
Fourteen years old this month, the Wests war in Afghanistan had all but
vanished from the headlines. Even before the fall of Kunduz this week,
however the first provincial capital to be taken by the Taliban in more than
a decade it was clear that all was not going well.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that United States and allied
officials were reviewing White House plans to scale down NATO troop
numbers in Afghanistan to several hundred by the end of next year, from
some 10,000 now. A reduction on that scale, they apparently worry, could
leave the door open for not just a Taliban recovery, but also significant
inroads by elements of Islamic State.
Like the Russians before them, NATO appears to have squandered lives,
resources and a surprising degree of goodwill and with little left to show for
Even the most cursory examination reveals phenomenal waste. According to
calculations at the end of last year by the Financial Times and others, the war
had already cost almost $1 trillion (less than the $1.7 trillion spent on Iraq,
but still staggering). The official responsible for scrutinizing spending, U.S.
Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko, says

that, adjusted for inflation, efforts at development in Afghanistan have now

cost more than the Marshall Plan to reconstruct post-World War Two Europe.
Divided equally among Afghanistans 30 million citizens, the trillion dollars
amounts to some $33,000 per head. That would be more than $2,300 per
year, per person spread across the 14 years of the war. (Although, in reality,
the lions share of spending has come in the last seven years of the Obama
administration.) Annual per capita Afghan income in 2014 was only $670.
According to SIGAR, the United States has no real idea, even now, how many
Afghan troops, health centers or schools its money has backed. The money is
almost certainly going to pay for personnel who never existed.
(SIGARs reports and comments make depressing but fascinating reading a
must for anyone who really wants to understand what has gone wrong in
The simple truth, I would argue, is that we tend to look at the Afghan war in
entirely the wrong way, and because of that the United States has spent its
money poorly, too. The United States, British and broader Western media
outlets have focused their coverage on the Western soldier experience.
Even now, if you told most Americans or Brits to consider the real tragedy
of the Afghan war, they would think of dead and maimed NATO personnel, of
their widows and children. But thats like my view of the Sri Lanka war being
entirely colored just because I broke my neck in it (which of course it is). Its
understandable, even unavoidable but it misses the bigger picture.
According to fatalities monitoring website, 3495 coalition
soldiers have been killed since 2001 2364 Americans, 453 Brits and 678
others. Brown Universitys Cost of War Project, however, estimates that a
total of 92,000 Afghans were killed over the same period. At least 26,000 of
those, they believe, were civilians.
The real fight that counted was always the struggle for control between the
government in Kabul, the various regional power centers and the Taliban. Its
a fight that had been ongoing since the Russian withdrawal in 1989.

The hope in Afghanistan was that several years of tough action by Western
troops would break the Taliban and shape a country that could be handed
back to the Afghans. The reality, though, seems to have been that all sides
knew Western troops would eventually leave.
Exact breakdowns of where the money went in Afghanistan are difficult to
make not least because Western personnel rotating through the country
often failed to keep proper records, according to SIGAR. But it is clear that a
very large amount probably the vast majority went to the Western
military effort. According to the Washington think tank the Center for
Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, by 2014 the war cost $2.1 million for
every U.S. service member on the ground.
Huge amounts of equipment from mine-hardened patrol vehicles to new
patterns of camouflage clothing were rushed into production. By 2010, a
U.S. or NATO soldier suffering catastrophic injuries in Afghanistan could
expect a better standard of medical care than that available at any major
Western city trauma center.
For all the talk of strengthening the Afghan forces, their kit was always much
more basic troops without body armor, often in civilian-style pickup trucks.
This weekend, the New York Times reported Afghanistans most decorated
helicopter pilot complaining that new U.S.-delivered attack helicopters were
all but useless unable to reach the mountaintops often occupied by
Taliban, often suffering jammed guns and other mechanical failures.
According to SIGAR, Afghan security forces are seriously lacking in coldweather gear a must for soldiers based in mountainous regions where
winter can last for seven months.
Several commanders, particularly U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, tried to
focus on building Afghan capacity and winning hearts and minds. For most of
the troops and more junior leaders in warfare, however, Afghan forces were
rarely more than a distraction, danger or joke. Given the number of times
Afghan troops turned on NATO members, thats hardly surprising. And while
the New York Times might only just have discovered the alarming habit of
Afghan forces having sex with teenage boys, the phrase man love Thursday

had long been the topic of horrified conversation among Western soldiers not
easily shocked.
The problem, though, is that if Western troops dont stay in Afghanistan
forever and they probably will not the Afghan forces are almost the only
show in town. And if Afghan forces cant hold, power will be transferred to the
kind of warlords who preceded them, Taliban or otherwise.
Even the work done on strengthening the Afghan government may simply
have created something unsustainable. SIGAR estimates that the Afghan
government costs $8 to $10 billion a year to run but can raise no more
than $2 billion itself in revenue. That leaves it more dependent on outside
support than probably any other nation.
Its not all bad news. Even SIGAR never prone to put a gloss on things
unnecessarily points to reduced maternal mortality rates, at least modestly
improved access to education, and a new government under President Ashraf
Ghani that seems genuinely keen to assert its authority and tackle corruption.
The U.S. forces that remain there may still be able to make a difference.
Indeed, it is easy to forget now that many, many fewer only a handful of
special operators and intelligence agency paramilitaries worked with local
groups to oust the Taliban from much of the country within weeks after
September 11.
Their departure, though, would not mean the end of the fight for Afghanistan.
It might only be the beginning.
This article originally appeared on on October 1, 2015.
PS21 is a non-governmental, non-ideological, non-national organization. All
views expressed are the authors own.