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The now-ending US-led war in Afghanistan, by the numbers

Over 170,000 lives, trillions of dollars: The cost of the Afghan war

American’s longest conflict was never formally declared a war and was paid for with borrowed money; amid the carnage, infant mortality dropped and literacy climbed

Schoolgirls sit inside a classroom with bouquets of flowers on empty desks as a tribute to those killed in the bombing of the Syed Al-Shahda girls school, in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 16, 2021. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
Schoolgirls sit inside a classroom with bouquets of flowers on empty desks as a tribute to those killed in the bombing of the Syed Al-Shahda girls school, in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 16, 2021. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

At just short of 20 years, the now-ending US combat mission in Afghanistan was America’s longest war.

Ordinary Americans tended to forget about it, and it received measurably less oversight from Congress than the Vietnam War did. But its death toll is in the many tens of thousands. And because the US borrowed most of the money to pay for it, generations of Americans will be burdened by the cost of paying it off.

Here’s a look at the US-led war in Afghanistan, by the numbers, as the Taliban in a lightning offensive take over much of the country before the United States’ August 31 deadline for ending its combat role and as the US speeds up American and Afghan evacuations.

Much of the data below is from Linda Bilmes of Harvard University’s Kennedy School and from the Brown University Costs of War project. Because the United States between 2003 and 2011 fought the Afghanistan and Iraq wars simultaneously, and many American troops served tours in both wars, some figures as noted cover both post-9/11 US wars.

Numbers show that more Afghan security forces died than Taliban or other opposition fighters, and over 1.5 times as many US contractors died as did service personnel.

Hundreds of aid workers and dozens of journalists were also killed.

Meanwhile, infant mortality plummeted and literacy among girls shot up.

In Washington, the cost of the war, which was never formally declared, was barely mentioned. The price, trillions of dollars, will be covered by generations to come.

The longest war

Percentage of US population born since the 2001 attacks plotted by al-Qaeda leaders who were sheltering in Afghanistan: Roughly one out of every four.

The human cost

  • American service members killed in Afghanistan through April: 2,448.
  • US contractors: 3,846.
  • Afghan national military and police: 66,000.
  • Other allied service members, including from other NATO member states: 1,144.
  • Afghan civilians: 47,245.
  • Taliban and other opposition fighters: 51,191.
  • Aid workers: 444.
  • Journalists: 72.

In total, 172,390 people are estimated to have died as a result of the fighting.

Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of US occupation

  • Percentage drop in infant mortality rate since US, Afghan and other allied forces overthrew the Taliban government, which had sought to restrict women and girls to the home: about 50.
  • Percentage of Afghan teenage girls able to read today: 37.

Oversight by Congress

  • Date Congress authorized US forces to go after culprits in September 11, 2001, attacks: September 18, 2001.
  • Number of times US lawmakers have voted to declare war in Afghanistan: 0.
  • Number of times lawmakers on Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee addressed costs of Vietnam War, during that conflict: 42
  • Number of times lawmakers in same subcommittee have mentioned costs of Afghanistan and Iraq wars, through mid-summer 2021: 5.
  • Number of times lawmakers on Senate Finance Committee have mentioned costs of Afghanistan and Iraq wars since September 11, 2001, through mid-summer 2021: 1.

Paying for a war on credit, not in cash

  • Amount US president Harry Truman temporarily raised top tax rates to pay for Korean War: 92%.
  • Amount US president Lyndon Johnson temporarily raised top tax rates to pay for Vietnam War: 77%.
  • Amount US president George W. Bush cut tax rates for the wealthiest, rather than raise them, at outset of Afghanistan and Iraq wars: at least 8%.
  • Estimated amount of direct Afghanistan and Iraq war costs that the United States has debt-financed as of 2020: $2 trillion.
  • Estimated interest costs by 2050: up to $6.5 trillion.
  • Amount Bilmes estimates the United States has committed to pay in health care, disability, burial and other costs for roughly 4 million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans: more than $2 trillion.
  • Period those costs will peak: after 2048.

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