A Mistake from the Beginning: Looking Back on the Afghanistan War

The longest war in American history ended this August, as US troops left Afghanistan. What the US withdrawal will ultimately mean for both countries is not yet clear. However, I would argue the original US intervention in Afghanistan was a mistake. Consider the following:

The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan was costly in lives. From October 7, 2001, when the US invasion of Afghanistan began, to the final withdrawal, 2,461 US military personnel and civilian employees of the Defense Department were killed because of the intervention.[1] Other lives lost include an estimated 3,917 American contractors, 1,144 troops from allied nations, and 46,319 Afghan civilians.[2] The majority of Afghan civilians were killed by anti-government militants such as the Taliban, but thousands of civilians were killed by US forces, the security forces of the US-supported Afghan government, and affiliated forces.

The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan was costly in money. The US government has spent, according to one estimate, at least $1 trillion on the Afghanistan intervention and related operations.[3] Adjusted for inflation, the United States spent more on Afghanistan than was spent to rebuild western Europe after World War II.[4]

The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan was morally compromised. Thousands of civilians were killed by US and affiliated forces. In recent years, many civilians died from an intensified US bombing campaign against anti-government militants. After declining for years, the number of US bombs dropped on Afghanistan dramatically increased starting in 2017, with the number of civilian deaths also increasing. Bombing by US and Afghan government forces killed 1,543 civilians during 2017-2019.[5] The United States also funded Afghan government security forces even when those forces were implicated in human rights abuses.[6]

The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan was ineffective. Almost 20 years of a US military presence and US support to the Afghan government failed to defeat the Taliban’s anti-government insurgency. The United States could help prevent the Taliban from taking over the country, but it could not win a decisive victory or enable the Afghan government to do so.

The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan was a strategically unwise response to terrorism. The United States invaded Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001, and overthrew the Taliban regime that was sheltering al Qaeda. The intervention’s primary goal was to disrupt al Qaeda’s activities and prevent further terrorist attacks.

However, countering terrorism through invasion and regime change is not a wise strategy. Establishing a stable new regime is massively costly and difficult. Meanwhile, terrorist groups can find territorial bases elsewhere, as al Qaeda has.[7] Further, such bases are not necessary to carry out terrorist attacks: such attacks require only small groups with guns, knives, explosives, or even just vehicles. By responding to 9/11 with the Afghanistan intervention, the United States took on a huge, costly responsibility only to deny al Qaeda a moderate advantage.

I do not know if the US war in Afghanistan could have ended better. However, I feel confident that the war should never have been begun. May the war’s legacy include a resolution to reject the unwise and costly pursuit of regime change.   

A Peace Action petition urging President Biden to allow more Afghan refugees into the United States is available at https://www.peaceaction.org/get-involved/action-alert-increase-the-refugee-cap/. Please consider signing.

Groups working to help Afghan refugees within the United States are Church World Service (https://cwsglobal.org/take-action/afghan-siv-and-refugee-program/) and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (https://www.lirs.org/help-our-afghan-allies/). Please consider supporting one of these groups.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.


[1] “Casualty Status,” US Department of Defense, accessed September 2, 2021, https://bit.ly/3ubOchZ.  

[2] Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz, “Human Cost of Post-9/11 Wars: Direct War Deaths in Major War Zones, Afghanistan & Pakistan (Oct. 2001 – Aug. 2021); Iraq (March 2003 – Aug. 2021); Syria (Sept. 2014 – May 2021); Yemen (Oct. 2002-Aug. 2021) and Other Post-9/11 War Zones,” 20 Years of War, a Costs of War Research Series, September 1, 2021, https://bit.ly/3AIuJaR. For more detailed information on Afghanistan civilian war deaths, see Neta C. Crawford, “War-Related Death, Injury, and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-2014,” Costs of War, May 22, 2015, https://bit.ly/3uwLjse; and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s Reports on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict series, available at https://bit.ly/3FaIEcC.

[3] Neta C. Crawford, “The U.S. Budgetary Costs of the Post-9/11 Wars,” 20 Years of War, a Costs of War Research Series, September 1, 2021, https://bit.ly/3iuevv1, 14.

[4] Craig Whitlock, “At War with the Truth,” Washington Post, December 9, 2019, https://wapo.st/3a1ABAk.   

[5] Neta C. Crawford, “Afghanistan’s Rising Civilian Death Toll Due to Airstrikes, 2017-2020,” Costs of War, December 7, 2020, https://bit.ly/3AHjiAw, 5-6.

[6] Courtney Kube, “Report: Afghan Security Forces Committed 75 Rights Abuses, Including Child Sex Assault,” NBC News, January 23, 2018, https://nbcnews.to/3mkGdLL.

[7] Congressional Research Service, “Al Qaeda: Background, Current Status, and U.S. Policy,” In Focus, June 14, 2021, https://bit.ly/39YRdZx.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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