The Cost of America’s Longest War

Charles Pena Scholar, Defense Priorities
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U.S. soldiers have been in Afghanistan for more than a decade and a half, making it America’s longest foreign war. There appears to be no end in sight. In fact, with the White House delegating authority to set troop levels to the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Mattis has decided to send another 4,000 troops to Afghanistan. But what have we achieved in nearly 16 years? And at what cost?

We seem to have forgotten that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) approved by Congress on September 14, 2001, was “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” In other words, Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the then Taliban-led government in Afghanistan because they gave safe haven to bin Laden and al Qaeda.

The Taliban was driven from power in a matter of weeks. Over the next few years, al Qaeda’s senior leadership was disrupted and scattered– largely to neighboring Pakistan. But it wouldn’t be until May 2011 that Osama bin Laden was finally found and killed by U.S. Special Operations Forces.

Yet along the way– well before bin Laden was killed– what was initially a counterterrorism campaign morphed into a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban, who were seen as a threat to the fledgling Karzai government in Kabul. As such, the U.S. military effort was no longer about going after those who were responsible for 9/11, but became a democratic nation-building mission.

As a candidate, Trump said, “If I become President, the era of nation-building will be ended.” And he has previously called for the U.S. to “get out of Afghanistan.  Instead, we’re wading deeper in.  And if previously more than 100,000 U.S. troops couldn’t prevail in Afghanistan, how will adding 4,000 to the 8,400 already there make a difference?

The war in Afghanistan has already claimed more than 2,300 American lives with at least 20,000 more wounded, according to the Pentagon. And then there are the untold number of returning soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), one of the effects of which is that roughly 20 veterans commit suicide each day.

Also, civilian casualties– so-called collateral damage– cannot be ignored. According to the latest quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), “Civilian casualties in 2016 were the highest since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began reporting them in 2009.” More than 31,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed as a result of the war. These deaths matter because according to the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24, “An air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory.”

Then there is the staggering financial cost. At one point, the Congressional Research Service reported U.S. taxpayers were spending $3.6 billion a month in Afghanistan. According to one estimate, the war has cost more than $1 trillion to date. Another analysis concludes that, adjusting for inflation, the U.S. has spent more trying to fix Afghanistan than it did on the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover after World War II.

But the U.S. military does not exist to fix other peoples’ countries. It exists to protect America against direct threats to the homeland and our way of life. As such, the threat in Afghanistan doesn’t warrant a continued U.S. military presence and the associated costs. Neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda are direct military or terrorist threats– let alone existential threats– to the United States that require us to spend billions more dollars and risk American lives to defeat them.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.