It is a war seemingly without end – 20 years of blood and sweat spilled in Afghanistan’s deserts has claimed tens of thousands of lives, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and achieved few of its aims.
The country’s government is held together by a fragile power-sharing deal, it is one of the least democratic and most-violent places on earth, and half of its territory is either in Taliban hands or being contested by the Islamists.
Now, NATO leaders are meeting for talks this week are thought to be mulling withdrawal after President Trump pledged to have all US troops out by May.
While Biden may yet reverse that promise, if he pushes ahead then it is unlikely that NATO forces will stay much longer. Their withdrawal would bring an end to one of the longest conflicts of modern times.
So, after two decades of war, was it all worth it? MailOnline examines…
NATO entered Afghanistan in December 2001, shortly after the US invasion, and at the peak of its mission in 2011 had 130,000 troops in the country. That number now stands at just 10,000 – with chiefs mulling a full withdrawal. The 20-year war has cost the alliance at least $825bn, seen 3,500 troops killed and has left vast swathes of the country still in Taliban hands (left)
The human cost
The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 on a counter-terrorism mission – seeking to capture or kill the Al Qaeda leaders who orchestrated the 9/11 terror attack, and to displace the Taliban government which sheltered the group.
NATO was not far behind, arriving in the country two months later with a mission to secure Kabul province so the new government could be established there.
But the objectives quickly changed – a new goal to rebuild Afghanistan as a stable and democratic country within the Middle East emerged, and the war dragged on.
Military operations expanded to fit. In 2003, NATO’s mission extended across the entire country and troops became more involved in day-to-day fighting alongside regular US forces.
Coalition forces have lost 3,500 troops, the vast majority of whom – around 2,400 – were Americans, while tens of thousands have been injured in the fighting. Around 110,000 Afghans are thought to have died, thought that is likely an under-estimate
At its height, in 2011, the NATO force numbered roughly 130,000 men drawn from 50 countries, before declining rapidly from 2013 as US forces pulled back.
In 2014, primary responsibility for security was handed over to the Afghan government and today, there are around 10,000 troops from 36 countries stationed there in support and training roles.
Over that time, some 3,500 coalition troops have died fighting – the vast majority, around 2,400, were American.
The UK lost some 450 soldiers – the second-highest total – who were largely killed in Helmand and Kandahar provinces when they took over combat operations from the Americans.
On the Afghan side, it is thought that more than 110,000 have been killed including at least 31,000 civilians who were largely hit by airstrikes.
At least 30,000 coalition troops have also been wounded in the fighting – the vast majority American – while tens of thousands of Afghans have also been wounded.
The financial cost
NATO costs are hard to estimate because its troops are drawn from dozens of countries which control spending individually through many separate budgets.
However, the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute previously estimated that combined US and NATO combat costs in Afghanistan from 2001 and 2012 totalled around $725billion.
Researchers from the Development Initiatives foundation then used that data to estimate that each soldier posted in Afghanistan costs roughly $450,000 per year.
Using that estimate along with average NATO troop figures between 2013 and last year, it is possible to arrive an a total estimate for NATO combat operations of around $825billion over the course of the war.
NATO combat operations alone are thought to have cost somewhere around $825billion, though the cost of rebuilding the country and supporting Afghan forces is far higher. Estimates of those costs stretch into the trillions of dollars (file image, a gas plant burns in the city of Herat)
However, this figure is likely to be an under-estimate as it only covers boots on the ground, without factoring in aid donations and money spent on the rebuilding.
NATO countries separately fund Afghan security forces to the tune of several billion dollars each year, with $3.4billion contributed in 2020-21.
On the US side, estimates published by the New York Times in 2019 put costs at well over $2trillion.
Some researchers have gone further, with one paper from Brown University suggesting the true sum is closer to $6trillion.
What has it achieved?
Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 bombings, is dead – while most of his co-conspirators are either locked in Guantanamo Bay or have also been killed.
The Taliban are no longer in control of Afghanistan, which has held five sets of elections since 2004 – the last being the 2019 presidential race.
That resulted in a disputed ballot that narrowly handed victory to Ashraf Ghani over his rival Abdullah Abdullah – who set up a parallel government.
The pair eventually reached a power-sharing deal in May 2020 that saw Ghani remain leader but granted Abdullah control of key ministries and put him in charge of negotiating with the Taliban.
However, it is still ranked as one of the least-democratic places on earth according to The Economist’s 2020 ranking, coming 139th of 167 countries, alongside the likes of Cuba and Venezuela.
The Taliban (delegates pictured in Qatar last year) are officially in peace talks with the Afghan government, but there is little sign of an agreement being reached. As US forces have withdrawn, attacks on official forces and civilians have increased
It is also riven with violence, with the Taliban waging a determined counter-insurgency against the government.
As US forces have drawn down attacks by Taliban forces on civilians, Afghan security forces and the armed forces have increased.
Resolute Support, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, reported 2,586 civilian casualties from October 1 to December 31 last year, with 810 killed and 1,776 wounded.
Attacks in northern Baghlan and southern Uruzgan provinces over two days in December last year killed at least 19 members of the Afghan security forces.
In Kabul, a roadside bomb struck a vehicle, wounding two, and a lawyer was shot in a targeted killing.
Meanwhile Taliban forces either control or are contesting more than half of Afghanistan’s territory, according to the Long War Journal.
A proposal published by President Biden’s own advisers warned recently that it would take as little as 18 months for the group to regain control of the country if the US withdraws in May, as scheduled.
‘We believe a U.S. withdrawal will provide terrorists an opportunity to reconstitute, and that reconstitution will take place within about 18 to 36 months,’ said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Trump.
U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (centre) and U.S. Army General Scott Miller, commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan (right), attend President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration in Kabul last year
They have recommended keeping US troops in the country until peace talks which are supposed to be taking place between the Afghan government and Taliban reach an ‘acceptable result’.
But with talks effectively stalled there is no guarantee that an ‘acceptable result’ will come soon – if ever – while others warn keeping American soldiers in the country past the deadline may make them the target of attacks.
At least 30,000 Afghans have been wounded in the fighting, though
The talks come as President Joe Biden wrangles with whether to keep Trump’s promise to withdraw all US troops by May this year, a move that would likely lead NATO to withdraw.
Biden’s advisers have urged him to push that deadline back, saying the Taliban would be in full control of the country within three years if the US departs now.