The cost of two decades of war in Afghanistan is hard to comprehend.
Since the invasion in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, a colossal price has been paid in the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and combatants. That grim accounting falls on more than 30 countries around the world, with the heaviest burden by far borne by the Afghan people themselves.
The fighting also displaced millions and cost dearly in financial terms, with trillions of dollars going toward military spending and aid. With the Afghan war now over and the Taliban in complete control of the country, it is possible to begin accounting for the conflict’s impact on Afghanistan and beyond.
Washington spent over $2.6 trillion on the Afghan conflict. This figure doesn’t include the future interest on war borrowing, nor any future costs to assist veterans. In addition, the U.S. and allies also contributed to international funds and institutions operating in Afghanistan, but — at least for the U.S. — these donations pale in comparison to the military costs sustained throughout the years.
The actual financial costs of the war are hard to ascertain for most European countries, but the U.K. had spent about £21 billion from 2001 to 2014 — more recent estimates aren’t available.
The human cost — for Afghans, for NGO workers and reporters, for soldiers and their families — is incalculable. Estimates of casualties as a direct result of the war exist, but they tell very little about the conflict’s indirect costs: poverty, starvation, mental illness and life-long impacts on health and wellbeing.
Among coalition forces, U.S. military staff and contractors suffered the highest number of casualties, with U.K. soldiers dying in greater numbers than other European nations.
Afghans themselves, however, have paid an even higher price. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recently called Afghanistan “one of the deadliest places in the world” for civilians. Over 50,000 civilian casualties, including injuries and deaths, have been recorded since 2009, when the U.N. mission in Afghanistan began keeping systematic records. The last few years had seen a decline, but as violence broke out again at the end of 2020 and into 2021, civilian casualties rose again.
Faced with violence and a constant threat to their lives, many Afghanis left their homes, either to move to safer parts of the country or abroad.
Over 3 million people were internally displaced due to the conflict at the end of 2020. The U.N. estimates that in the first seven months of the year, over half a million people have been forcibly displaced. More than half of them are children.
In addition, there were nearly 2.6 million Afghan refugees worldwide in 2020. The figure only accounts for those who were granted international protection but excludes undocumented migrants, or those who settled abroad for economic reasons and chose not to request, or were not granted, asylum.
The fall of Kabul to the Taliban has reignited the debate over migration in Europe, with some politicians warning of a new “migration crisis” like the one prompted by the Syrian war in 2015. Yet it is neighboring countries, especially Iran and Pakistan, that took in most Afghan asylum seekers. Currently, Pakistan hosts 1.4 million Afghan refugees, and another 780,000 are in Iran, according to U.N. data. But other estimates suggest the two countries are collectively home to around 5 million Afghans.
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