The Taliban, in a shocking blitzkrieg, have swept through Afghanistan in less than a month, the 300,000-man Afghan army all but melting away in their path. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, as he fled to Tajikistan over the weekend, conceded in a statement that the Taliban had won, “with the judgment of their swords and guns, and are now responsible for the honor, property and self-preservation of their countrymen.”
And what of the honor and property of Afghanistan’s erstwhile occupiers, the United States of America? Gone missing. Today, thousands of interpreters and their families await visas to the U.S., while Taliban fighters parade triumphantly in captured tanks and humvees paid for by Uncle Sam.
In the 20 years since September 11, 2001, the United States has spent more than $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan. That’s $300 million dollars per day, every day, for two decades. Or $50,000 for each of Afghanistan’s 40 million people. In baser terms, Uncle Sam has spent more keeping the Taliban at bay than the net worths of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the 30 richest billionaires in America, combined.
Those headline numbers include $800 billion in direct war-fighting costs and $85 billion to train the vanquished Afghan army, which folded in the weeks since the Pentagon’s sudden early July closure of Bagram Air Force Base eliminated the promise of air support against the advancing Taliban. U.S. taxpayers have been giving Afghan soldiers $750 million a year in payroll. All told, Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates the total spending at $2.26 trillion.
And the costs are even greater in terms of lives lost. There have been 2,500 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan, and nearly 4,000 more U.S. civilian contractors killed. That pales beside the estimated 69,000 Afghan military police, 47,000 civilians killed, plus 51,000 dead opposition fighters. The cost so far to care for 20,000 U.S. casualties has been $300 billion, with another half-trillion or so expected to come.
We’ll keep incurring costs long after President Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan is complete. Naturally, the United States has financed the Afghan war with borrowed money. Brown University researchers estimate that more than $500 billion in interest has already been paid (included in the $2.26 trillion total sum), and they figure that by 2050 the cost of interest alone on our Afghan war debt could reach $6.5 trillion. That amounts to $20,000 for each and every U.S. citizen.
Videos taken from the tarmac of the Kabul airport indicate that the 6,000 U.S. troops sent there have not been able to establish a perimeter even around the runways, where Afghanis are shown crawling over one another to squeeze onto planes. One flight is carried 640 people, with more than 10,000 U.S. citizens said to still be awaiting evacuation and thousands more sheltering in place. Some were so desperate to flee Taliban rule that they clung to the landing gear of transports departing Kabul airport, only to fall to their deaths as the plane began its climb.
There’s even less hope of escape for the generation of Afghan women and girls who grew up in a somewhat more liberalized time, but now face mandatory burkas and evaporated prospects for education and employment (a continuation of the Taliban’s “War Against Women.”) There are an estimated 1.6 million more women employed in Afghanistan’s workforce than 20 years ago. The Taliban promises to reverse that all, at a human cost incalculable.