Afghanistan: the cost of war

 In Afghanistan

As we mark eight years of the war in Afghanistan, and President Obama considers increasing the US military presence, it is an important time to reflect on what the costs of this war have been in blood and treasure to the people of Afghanistan, the soldiers fighting it, and those of us funding it, and whether the gains have been worth the sacrifice.

Civilian casualties

It is difficult to know exactly how many civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, but estimates range from 12,000 to 32,000 directly and indirectly caused by war. The Afghan people have been devastated by death from US airstrikes and military operations, being caught in the middle of fights between coalition forces and insurgents, and the abject poverty and instability caused by a foreign occupation. For many of us in the United States, these are sterile numbers in a newspaper story (if they’re reported on at all). Carrying on a war is more difficult when there is a human face on the pain and suffering.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict compiled stories of civilians impacted by the war:

A mother who lost her husband and son in a suicide attack:

“My husband and only son were killed [in a suicide bomb attack]. …When the blast happened, pieces of the flesh thrown from the blast landed in our yard…The big problem is that there’s no male in our family now…. I am not able to think of … what we can do. We are drowning in agony and misery.”

A man whose wife was killed by US Marines in 2007:

“We were traveling from Kabul to Pakistan for a wedding. I heard firing and I tried to push my wife down to protect her. But then I saw the blood. … Our children were there when it happened and they watched her die.”  “I was left with 2 young daughters, one was only 8 mo. old when she was killed. I wish I could protect them from knowing what happened to their mother but I know that isn’t possible.”

A man who lost his father and niece and was also injured by US Marines:

“We were going to Jalalabad to pay bills and then on the main road, a suicide bomber attacked [a US military convoy] and they started firing. … I was injured and I also lost my father and my 14-year-old niece. Our vehicle was totally destroyed — we found 1,250 holes in the car…I’m disappointed by international forces. They are killing innocent civilians. If they are here for peace and prosperity, that is good. But if [they are here] for killings and bombardments, then there is no reason for them to be here…We want justice. We want a trial of those harming civilians.”

Mustafa Saber tells the heartbreaking story of a young girl whose family was killed by a US airstrike:

“I loved my family very much,” she said, tears in her dark eyes. “Every moment I hear the voices of my mother, father, sister and brothers calling me, but I can’t see them. We had a good life. I used to play with my brothers and sister on the street. My father was Abdurrashid, my mother was Khumari, my sister was Huma and my brothers were Halim and Salim. The Americans killed them and now I am alone.”

Suddenly bitter, she adds, “The American killed everyone in the village. They killed my friends and other children. I hate them.”

She recalls the events of that terrifying day. “Explosions woke me up in the night. I ran to the desert, where I drifted off to sleep again. When I awoke, I ran home and I saw parts of human bodies scattered all around, and heard the cries of survivors,” she said.

“I don’t remember who told me that my family were all dead dead. At first I didn’t believe it, so I went to see if it was really true. Then I saw their bodies, all mixed with blood and dirt. When they took all the martyrs to the graveyard to be buried, I was all alone and neighbours took me to their home. Then my grandmother learned of what happened, and now I am with her.”

Now every time a plane passes Zahra cries and throws herself into her grandmother’s arms.

It’s clear that the war is creating the opposite of the peace and stability the US and coalition forces aim to bring to Afghanistan. Not only is it a moral problem to have so many civilians dying due to direct United States action or as a result of fighting between the coalition forces and insurgents. Such action increases anti-American sentiment and serves as a recruiting tool for extremists.

In addition to the emotional and psychological devastation, survivors are often thrust into poverty when breadwinners die or homes and destroyed. This tragedy is likely to continue and get worse, especially with an increase in troops. The UN reports that civilian casualties in the first six months of 2009 saw 24% more civilian casualties than the same period in 2008. While General McChrystal has stated a commitment to reducing civilian casualties, nothing is foolproof, and one innocent life is too many.

US and NATO soldiers

According to, 1,425 soldiers have died in Afghanistan so far, including 853 Americans. Despite Secretary Gates’ decision to allow photographs of coffins returning to the US, and the controversial decision by the AP to run a photo of a dying soldier in Afghanistan, the human cost of the war to our military hasn’t been brought home to most Americans.

CNN brought the devastating report of a soldier dying after he reenlisted in the military to obtain health insurance for his young son:

Army SPC Greg Missman had ended his military service 11 years earlier, but signed back on in order to provide his young son Jack with health insurance coverage.

After only one month on the ground in Afghanistan, Missman’s father Jim received the news that Greg’s convoy had been ambushed, and Greg was killed in the attack.

CNN reports that a “Pentagon spokesman said there is no way to count how many soldiers have joined the armed services to get health care benefits. As for Greg Missman, his son will continue to receive military health insurance so this soldier’s sacrifice will live on.”

Even though there are more than two months left, 2009 has already been the deadliest year of the war in Afghanistan for US troops.  The soldiers who are lucky enough to survive the war face physical and psychological injuries. A 2008 Rand Corporation report showed that nearly 1 in 5 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

  • 19 percent of returning service members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury while deployed
  • 7 percent report both a probable brain injury and current PTSD or major depression
  • The study estimates that about 320,000 service members may have experienced a traumatic brain injury during deployment, from mild concussions to severe penetrating head wounds. Yet, just 43 percent reported ever being evaluated by a physician for that injury
  • Half of service members say they had a friend who was seriously wounded or killed
  • 45 percent report that they saw dead or seriously injured non-combatants
  • Over 10 percent say they were injured themselves and required hospitalization

For some of them, the devastation is too much. The federal government estimates that 5,000 veterans commit suicide every year, far more than die in combat.  The toll is also rising in the active duty military, with the Army reporting a record 140 suicides last year.  Their deaths are tragedies for those who were relieved to see their loved ones come home from the battlefield:

As soon as Arylane Ala walked into her house that day in 2007, she saw blood — a red pool stretching from the coffee table to the fireplace. Then she saw her youngest son face down on the floor, an antique rifle by his side.

She didn’t approach his body, she said: “I didn’t want to see his face … his expression.”

Four tumultuous years after serving in the Middle East with the Kentucky Air National Guard, 25-year-old Bryan Ala of Louisville took his life — part of a rising number of military and veteran suicides as the Iraq war continues and fighting intensifies in Afghanistan.

“Life goes on after you lose a child,” said Bryan’s father, Rich, 60. “But sweet is never as sweet as it was. The sun’s never as bright. I’ve got a hole in my heart that will never heal up.”

The US has surely not been able to demonstrate any kind of “success” that would justify subjecting men and women who volunteer for the military to such danger.

Our tax dollars

While our Congress argues over how they can’t possibly find the funds to insure the 45,000 uninsured Americans who die every year, our government has spent $228 billion on a war that has not eradicated the threat from Al Qaeda, and is about to pass another $68 billion for 2010. With President Obama’s shift to focusing on Afghanistan, the financial cost of the war is skyrocketing, and could grow even more if he sends additional troops.

The new documentary Rethink Afghanistan paints a disturbing picture of the short- and long-term costs we face if we continue in this direction:

Graph from the National Priorities Project

Graph from the National Priorities Project

The National Priorities Project’s cost of war calculator shows us what we could have bought with the money we have spent in Afghanistan thus far:

67,197,963 People with Health Care for One Year OR

236,038,753 Homes with Renewable Electricity for One Year OR

4,924,406 Public Safety Officers for One year OR

3,909,968 Music and Arts Teachers for One Year OR

35,250,464 Scholarships for University Students for One Year OR

42,616,822 Students receiving Pell Grants of $5350 OR

1,773,590 Affordable Housing Units OR

100,491,438 Children with Health Care for One Year OR

31,288,596 Head Start Places for Children for One Year OR

3,745,380 Elementary School Teachers for One Year OR

3,294,203 Port Container Inspectors for One year

While we have an obligation to assist people in Afghanistan and do what we can for stability, a new, less expensive and more effective strategy could be implemented by investing a fraction of what we are currently spending.  So far, 90% of the money the US has spent in Afghanistan has been spent on the military. The US civilian and military presence in Afghanistan has been fraught with waste and fraud, so even the money we are devoting to rebuilding Afghanistan is ending up in contractors’ pockets. We can make smart investments in programs like Afghan-led development, diplomacy, and targeted policing and intelligence.

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