America’s ‘Forever War’ is over. But at what cost?
When Donald Trump’s administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, he optimistically proclaimed that “we think we’ll be successful in the end.” His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, asserted that the administration was “seizing the best opportunity for peace in a generation.”
Eighteen months later, President Joe Biden is pointing to the agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, as he tries to deflect blame for the Taliban overrunning Afghanistan in a blitz. He says it bound him to withdraw U.S. troops, setting the stage for the chaos engulfing the country. This explanation can hardly hold any water.
Biden has little room for claiming the agreement boxed him in. It had an escape clause: The U.S. could have withdrawn from the accord if Afghan peace talks failed. They did of course (didn't even got off the ground), but Biden couldn't resist the Trumpesque cut-and-run that it offered. Not a word of the terms was changed, except a standard extension for the complete pullout from May to September. In the end it happened even earlier of course, and far from their own terms.
In an interview with AP, Chris Miller, acting defence secretary in the final months of the Trump administration, chafed at the idea that Biden was handcuffed by the agreement. It is more-or-less a given that changes in administration allow got reviews of every policy pursued under a previous president. It would seem to be the only Trump policy Biden found himself compelled to honour.
“The Doha agreement was a very weak agreement, and the U.S. should have gained more concessions from the Taliban,” said Lisa Curtis, an Afghanistan expert who served during the Trump administration as the National Security Council’s senior director for South and Central Asia.
The agreement, she said, was heavily weighted toward the Taliban, contributed to undermining Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — who promptly fled the country after the first Taliban commanders were spotted in Kabul, and is now in the United Arab Emirates — and facilitated the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners without a commensurate concession from the Taliban.
“They wanted U.S. forces out, and they wanted to take over the country militarily, and they believed that they could do that,” Curtis said of the Taliban. “That was just crystal clear.”
The agreement called for the U.S. to bring down its forces to 8,600 from 13,000 over the first three to four months of being signed, with the remaining U.S. forces withdrawing in 14 months, or by May 1, 2021.
Biden, in an ABC interview that aired Thursday, said he was confronted with that deadline soon after taking office: “Do I say we’re staying? And do you think we would not have to put a hell of a lot more troops?” Even without Trump’s deal, Biden said he “would’ve tried to figure out how to withdraw those troops” and that “there is no good time to leave Afghanistan.”
The agreement stipulated commitments the Taliban were expected to make to prevent terrorism, including obligations to renounce al-Qaida and prevent that group or others from using Afghan soil to plot attacks on the U.S. or its allies. Though the agreement bound the Taliban to halt attacks on U.S. and coalition forces, it did not explicitly require them to expel al-Qaida or to stop attacks on the Afghan military.
The agreement provided significant legitimacy to the Taliban, whose leaders met with Pompeo, the first secretary of state to have such interactions. There were also discussions of them coming to the U.S. to meet with Trump. One day before the Doha deal was signed, a top aide to chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad told AP the agreement was not irreversible, and “there is no obligation for the United States to withdraw troops if the Afghan parties are unable to reach agreement or if the Taliban show bad faith” during negotiations.
Those negotiations were meant to begin within a month of the deal being signed on February 29, 2020 – but they never did. And they never would. The Taliban regarded the government in Kabul with utter disdain, for being Washington’s puppets. Indeed, their participation in the Doha talks was made conditional on the Afghan government having no part in them - they, the Taliban, could not be expected to sit with them. And the U.S. agreed to this. The process that resulted in Ghani and his supporters being left high and dry as the Taliban advanced actually started in Doha. Or maybe even completed.
That’s why Lisa Curtis now says the U.S. should not have entered the Doha talks “unless we were prepared to represent the Afghan government’s interests. It was an unfair negotiation, because nobody was looking out for the interests of the Afghan government.”
This abandonment became more and more glaring as the Taliban started their advance, soon after Biden surprised everyone by pledging to honour Trump’s deal – which previously had not received the kind of scrutiny it merited. The assumption had been that only in the event of a Trump reelection could it see the light of day. But now it became clear that America was preparing to cut-and-run. This is what explains the much-talked about ‘failure’ of the Afghan army to fight the Taliban’s advance. It would have merely delayed the inevitable, at the cost of a civil war that the Taliban would eventually win. Men who have served in uniform and saw through it all, such as British MP Tom Tugendhat, would find Biden's attempt at scapegoating the Afghan army 'shameful'. It was certainly duplicitous.
In blood and treasure
America’s longest war, the two-decade-long conflict in Afghanistan that started in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, killed tens of thousands of people, dogged four U.S. presidents and ultimately proved unwinnable despite its staggering cost in blood and treasure.
The final chapter, that carried echoes of the humiliating exit out of Saigon, Vietnam in 1975 - despite President Joe Biden’s assurances that ruled out precisely such a possibility only weeks earlier - must surely prompt a reckoning over the war’s lost lives and colossal expenditure.
Here’s a look at the spiralling cost of America’s campaign — the bloodshed, wasted funds and future consequences for the war-battered nation teetering on the brink of chaos.
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 the post-9/11 wars.
Gun and bomb attacks targeting civilians surged to previously unseen heights since the intra-Afghan peace negotiations opened in Qatar last fall, according to the U.N. Watchdogs say the conflict has killed a total of 72 journalists and 444 aid workers.
The Afghan government keeps the toll among its soldiers secret to avoid undermining morale, but Costs of War estimates the war has killed 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops.
The war has forced 2.7 million Afghans to flee abroad, mostly to Iran, Pakistan and Europe, the U.N. said. Another 4 million are displaced within the country, which has a total population of 36 million.
Meanwhile, 2,442 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded in the war since 2001, according to the Department of Defence. It’s estimated that over 3,800 U.S. 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 Biden’s 9/11 deadline.
The U.S. has spent a stunning total of $2.26 trillion on a dizzying array of expenses, according to the Costs of War project.
The Defence Department’s latest 2020 report said war-fighting costs totalled $815.7 billion over the years. That covers the operating costs of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, everything from fuel and food to Humvees, weapons and ammunition, from tanks and armoured vehicles to aircraft carriers and airstrikes.
Although America first invaded to retaliate against al-Qaida and rout its hosts, the Taliban, the U.S. and NATO soon pivoted to a more open-ended mission: nation-building on a massive scale. Washington poured over $143 billion into that goal since 2002, according to the latest figures from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
Of that, $88 billion went to training, equipping and funding Afghan military and police forces. Another $36 billion was spent on reconstruction projects, education and infrastructure like dams and highways, the SIGAR report said. Another $4.1 billion has gone to humanitarian aid for refugees and disasters. The campaign to deter Afghans from selling heroin around the world cost over $9 billion.
Unlike with other conflicts in American history, the U.S. borrowed heavily to fund the war in Afghanistan and has paid some $530 billion in interest. It has also paid $296 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.
Much of the billions lavished on huge infrastructure projects went to waste, the U.S. inspector general discovered. Canals, dams and highways fell into disrepair, as Afghanistan failed to absorb the flood of aid. Newly built hospitals and schools stood empty. Without proper oversight, the U.S. money bred corruption that undermined government legitimacy.
Despite the costly counternarcotics campaign, opium exports reached record heights. Despite the billions in weapons and training to Afghan security forces, the Taliban kept increasing the amount of territory they control. Despite vast spending on job creation and welfare, unemployment hovers around 25%. The poverty rate has fluctuated over the years, reaching 47% through 2020, according to the World Bank, compared to 36% when the fund first began calculating 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.
Although few could have wanted the war to prolong, many fear its finale – the Taliban sweeping to power as America stepped up its withdrawal -may jeopardise Afghanistan’s modest gains in health, education and women’s rights, made in the early years as the U.S. expanded the economy and toppled the Taliban.
Since 2001, life expectancy has increased to 64 years from 56, the World Bank says. Maternal mortality has more than halved. Opportunities for education have grown, with the literacy rate rising 8% to roughly 43%. Life in cities has improved, with 89% of residents having access to clean water, compared to 16% before the war.
Child marriage has declined by 17%, according to U.N. data. Girls’ enrolment in primary school has nearly doubled, and more women have entered college and served in Parliament. These figures still pale compared with global standards.
But more broadly, the failure of America’s ambitions to build a stable, democratic Afghanistan has left the country mired in uncertainty. Although a bloodbath has been avoided and the Taliban spokesmen have repeatedly said they harbour no desire for revenge against Afghans who may have worked with Nato, a sense of apprehension hangs thick in the air.
Race to evacuate
In a perfect world, according to American defence officials, U.S. military aircraft would be able to get 5,000 Afghans out of the Kabul airport each day. But perfect is the furthest thing from the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan right now.
After flights were grounded most of Monday to allow troops to corral a crowd of desperate Afghans who’d stormed the airport hoping to board C-17 Globemasters, the Pentagon confirmed in the early evening that flights had resumed and that they are working on the logistics to get as many as 22,000 Afghan interpreters, their families and other vulnerable Afghans into the U.S. ― by Aug. 31, reported the US military's media outlet Military Times.
“Over the next two weeks, we’re going to be as aggressive as we can in moving as many people as we can,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Military Times. “That’s seats on airplanes, not just military airplanes, but commercial and charter airplanes as well.”
For now, C-17s arriving to drop off troops are loading up with embassy personnel, other American citizens and Afghan special immigrant visa applicants, moving to one of a small handful of partner countries who have agreed to be way stations. So far, Qatar is the only confirmed location.
With the airport now under control, all estimated 22,000 people could be out in a week. If it takes longer than that, officials couldn’t confirm whether the mission would be extended into September.
President Joe Biden said in an address Monday that the U.S. delayed SIV evacuations so as not to create a panic in the country.
“Some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country,” he said. “It was also in part because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus, to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”
The Afghanistan crisis action group stood up in July, at the State Department’s behest, more than two months after President Joe Biden announced in April the full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of the summer. Almost immediately, Americans and Afghans alike wanted to know the exit plan for locals who had risked their lives to help U.S. troops.
They didn’t get their answer until late July, when State announced that 4,000 Afghans would be flown to a third country to complete their security screenings, while 750 would go straight to Fort Lee, Virginia, to do their final medical screenings before receiving their special immigrant visas.
Roughly 2,000 of those have made it to the U.S. since. On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, would be opened up to temporarily house incoming refugees, with the capacity to take in up to 22,000 before the end of the month.
The action group will “continue to do everything in this department to continue this process,” Garry Reid, the group’s lead, told Military Times, up to and past the deadline, if that’s called for. “We’re going to stay in this as long as it takes, as long as we can contribute.”
But Kirby reiterated that Aug. 31 is still the deadline, and that 22,000 is more of a ceiling than a known head count. “It doesn’t mean that there are going to be 22,000 people that need that support,” he said.
Weeks ago, when those evacuations began, the Taliban was rapidly conquering provincial capitals, but there was still a chance that SIVs not located in Kabul would be able to get themselves to the capital and to the airport to be processed. Now, the chances are slimmer than ever.
When reinforcements have all arrived, there will be roughly 7,000 U.S. troops securing the Kabul airport, and their mission so far is confined there, Kirby said, with no plans currently to help escort anyone to the airport.
So while the State Department has roughly 18,000 known applicants, and DoD is prepared to take in even more, the real determining factor will be whether these Afghans can make it safely to Hamid Karzai International. As for whether the security mission there could go past August, in an effort to evacuate as many as possible, Kirby could not say definitively.
“Beyond Aug. 31, it’s just too difficult to speculate, and we wouldn’t get ahead of decisions that are yet to be made,” he said.