A Lifetime at War in Afghanistan

On the night of August 30th, 2021, the Department of Defense posted a picture on its official Twitter account. This picture, taken with a night-vision lens, depicts a soldier running towards the camera, rifle in hand, with several buildings and lights in the distant background. The soldier in the photo is Major General Chris Donahue moments before he jumped onto a C-17 aircraft taking off from Hamid Karzi International Airport. History will remember him as the last United States soldier to leave Afghanistan, almost 20 years after the war first began.

The War in Afghanistan officially began on October 7, 2001 when the US bombing campaign on the country was initiated. For reference, the day I was born was December 22, 2000. That makes me 20 years old, close to 21, as of the writing of this article. On the day that General Donahue’s boots left the ground on Afghanistan for the last time, I was 7557 days old. Out of all of those days, the United States had been involved in Afghanistan for 7268 of those days. For 96% of my life, the United States has been fighting the War in Afghanistan.

I can’t remember a time without this war. I have no memory of life without it. Growing up, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was a fact of life. It was something I was raised in. I would hear about it every now and again, when my parents would have the news on. Something about the Taliban, or about troop numbers, but never more than just bits and pieces. Even so, it was always present in the background. Constantly on the back burner of our collective social consciousness. Throughout all the social, political, and cultural changes of the 2000s and 2010s, Afghanistan was always present. For me and my generation, it provided a constant white noise of war throughout our entire conscious lives.

Some have called the War in Afghanistan an "endless war". While not literally true, it might as well be. The entire period of US occupation amounts to just under twenty years in total. Twenty years might not sound all that bad on paper. Like Stalin might say, it’s not a tragedy, just a statistic. However, those twenty years are so much more than just a number. It represents a whole generation of men and women sent off to fight. Sons fighting in the same provinces their fathers did. Daughters stationed at the same bases their mothers fought from. Many of those deployed towards the end of the war probably didn’t remember when the war began. With a war this long, I’m not sure anyone really does.

With endless wars comes endless spending. If the US is to keep a constant stream of men, equipment, weapons, and bribes coming flowing into Afghanistan, none of that is free. As it turns out, none of that is cheap either. The Costs of War Institute at Brown University’s latest estimates for the total costs of the war peg it at $2.313 trillion. Written out long-hand, the number is: 2,313,000,000,000. This is the equivalent of spending just over 300 million dollars every single day just in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. Put in individual terms, this war cost the taxpayer roughly $2 every day, or $730 a year.

Imagine what that money could have done for my generation over the course of twenty years. Instead of building bombs, we could have built bridges and schools. My generation is finding themselves in the midst of an unprecedented student debt crisis. Imagine if even some of that money had gone to saving money for college instead of buying more bullets and hand grenades. The whole pile of $2.313 trillion could have just been set ablaze with a match, and even that would have been better than facilitating this destructive and pointless war.

Even with endless fighting and endless spending, one might justify the whole affair we got something out of it. High costs can be reconciled with an impressive end result. Not a chance. As soon as the US started pulling troops out of Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army disintegrated over the course of a few days. The 300,000 strong army just vanished like there were never even there. The Taliban, who had controlled the vast majority of the country prior to the 2001 invasion, was now in control of the whole country once more. Picking up right where they had left off, almost like nothing had even happened. All the time and money spent on making "progress" in Afghanistan was undone in the course of a few short days.

What had we accomplished in twenty years? Nothing at all. We had goals for what we wanted to accomplish in the country, but none of these were ever realistic in the slightest. We didn’t establish a democracy in the country, or educate them about Western conceptions of human rights. All the promises I heard on TV for 20 years were all nonsense, never realistic in their scope or objectives. As the Afghanistan Papers from the Washington Post showed, even the top brass knew this all along. No one on the inside was under any illusions about their prospects for success. All the TV appearances, think-tank pieces, and grandiose speeches that were fed to me were nothing but lies from beginning to end.

In summary: 300 million dollars wasted every day for twenty years, countless troop deployments, hundreds of thousands of lives lost, endless mistruths to the American people, soldiers coming home with shattered minds and shattered bodies, all to ultimately accomplish nothing.

What does Afghanistan mean to me? It means a pointless, costly, endless, evil, destructive, ridiculous, stupid war. It means generational conflict and a nation forever scarred by it, just as our nation was scarred by Vietnam fifty years ago. It means money taken from me and my generation to pay for a war that we can’t remember the start of. It means the failure of my government in their obligations to their citizens. It means a prolonged disaster of American imperialism abroad along with the deliberate lies and falsehoods they knowingly repeated to me. It means a total failure in the paradigm of empire that I have been raised in and lived under for my entire life.

Nevertheless, I must believe that Afghanistan also means hope. Hope that we will learn from the mistakes of the past and refuse to repeat them in the future. Hope that we will realize that it never had to be this way. Hope that the lessons from Afghanistan will be internalized. Hope that one day the senseless death associated with the pursuit of empire will stop once and for all.

J.W. Rich is an economics student in Charlotte, North Carolina. His interests are in economic theory and the history of economic thought. His work can be found on his blog at thejwrich.medium.com.