The Biggest Lesson of Afghanistan

The end to America’s longest war comes today after a little less than twenty years, tens of thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars, including $6.5 trillion in estimated interest costs alone by 2050. This war has been our longest, and the cost will be paid off by generations of Americans, many of which have not even been born yet.

One of the most alarming aspects of the last twenty years has been the unprecedented lack of Congressional oversight and the ease with which this particular war machine kicked into gear and reliably kept churning for years and years. According to data collected by Harvard University’s Kennedy School and the Brown University Costs of War project, this war saw an astounding disregard from the branch of government responsible for footing the bill.

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Not only did US lawmakers never vote officially to declare war in Afghanistan — setting a dangerous precedent for future executive leeway on going into battle — it appears that Congress also declined to kick the tires, even after taking on trillions in loans to finance what they approved, but never formally endorsed.

(US Army soldiers walk to their C-17 cargo plane for departure May 11, 2013, at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/via Getty Images)

Here are some more startling figures that reflect where the United States has now landed on the spectrum of proportional oversight as compared to the total cost. During the Vietnam War, lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee addressed the monumental costs of that war 42 times. The number of times lawmakers in the same subcommittee mentioned the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars — up through mid-summer 2021 — was a total of five times.

The Vietnam War cost $168 billion, which roughly equates to nearly one trillion dollars today. The Afghanistan and Iraq Wars have reached just under $10 trillion by the time all interest costs on the loans to finance the war are added in. Despite this substantial increase in cost, members of the Senate Finance Committee only mentioned the exorbitant costs of Afghanistan and Iraq once from Sept. 11, 2001, through mid-summer 2021.

The argument can be made that these wars were a response to an unprecedented attack on American soil, and therefore the initial public support for retaliation was high and justified Congressional laxity, but it is not a solid premise past 2010, following the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. While a 2002 Gallup poll found that 93 percent of Americans were willing to say that getting militarily involved in Afghanistan was not a mistake, this was a time when US and allied forces were having great initial success in breaking down al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

By 2010, support for the war was significantly waning. The number of troops deployed to Afghanistan reached its highest point of 100,000 soldiers. The American military also came under heavy international criticism for the mistreatment of Afghans, including a mass shooting of Afghan civilians.

Following the death of Bin Laden, a majority of Americans no longer saw a reason for the US to stay in Afghanistan and 54 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll said the war wasn’t worth fighting. By 2012, just one year later, the same survey concluded that 66 percent of Americans were now opposed to the war.

Despite this decrease in popularity for the war in Afghanistan for a majority of Americans, the complete and total lack of attention paid by members of Congress continued. Elected officials who served on the committees meant to oversee the costs of spending in Afghanistan continued to overlook many of the critical aspects of the war and what the spending debt would do to generations of Americans.

The new pattern of looking the other way had already begun after politicians harnessed near-universal support for striking back at those deemed to be our 9/11 attackers. The bank vault had been opened, and the door has turned out to be too substantial to close, even after the popularity of military spending had ceased.

This precedent of backing up bluster with no-questions-asked US dollars, which was established in 2001, is now the most substantial legacy we are left with as a country as two decades in Afghanistan come to a close. As we have seen in the last four years under Donald Trump, the idea that the United States can simply rectify its traditions and procedures, or change the laws to make politicians return to the way it used to be, has not proven to be an easily surmountable feat.

Americans, all of us, opened these floodgates and the only thing worse than the mistake itself is the insanity of not learning from our misguided endeavors and repeating the same mistake to the detriment of the next ten generations. It is the job of an informed electorate to hold elected officials, and ultimately Congress, accountable.

There is a great opportunity in each and every failure, but the chances of a nation collectively absorbing this critical lesson are slim. Without substantial reform on the limits of Congressional power in spending and otherwise, we are doomed to have another Trump and another Afghanistan.

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Amee Vanderpool writes the SHERO Newsletter and is an attorney, published author, contributor to newspapers and magazines, and analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.


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