War without end: Things to know as Afghanistan invasion turns 15

US troops invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington. What seemed like a quick victory over the Taliban regime turned into a bloody, endless guerrilla war that continues to this day.

President George W. Bush’s administration accused Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network of the hijacking of civilian airliners that struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The White House believed that Bin Laden was in Afghanistan and demanded that the Taliban turn him over. Taliban leader Mullah Omar asked for evidence. What he got was war.

With the help of US jets and troops, warlords from the Northern Alliance pushed the Taliban out of major cities and took the capital, Kabul, by mid-November. A new government was established, under US-backed President Hamid Karzai. NATO allies lent legitimacy to the US effort, sending troops to support the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan.

At first, the US operation was dubbed “Infinite Justice.” That was quickly changed to “Enduring Freedom,” over fears of offending religious sentiments of the Afghans. The second name proved ominous, however: Washington and its allies have been unable to extricate themselves from Afghanistan ever since.

The way things are

Though President George W. Bush started the war in Afghanistan, it was his successor, Barack Obama, who presided over the Iraq-style “surge” intended to end it. Fifteen years after the invasion, there are fewer than 9,000 US troops in Afghanistan, down from the 100,000 peak in 2011. They are part of “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel,” and the Pentagon insists they are there in a solely “advise and assist” role to the Afghan military, rather than fighting the Taliban or Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). Just this week, however, Staff Sergeant Adam S. Thomas, 31, was killed in Nangarhar Province, reportedly by an improvised bomb. He was the third US soldier killed in Afghanistan in 2016.

Since 2002, the US has spent more than $60 billion to train and equip Afghan security forces, according to Reuters. On Thursday, however, the Pentagon revealed that a number of Afghans who came to the US to train have deserted. Since the program began in January 2015, 44 Afghans have gone absent without leave, eight of them in September 2016 alone, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump told Reuters.

Opium cultivation, banned under the strict Taliban interpretation of Islam, has made a roaring comeback during the war. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated the extent of opium cultivation in Afghanistan at more than 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres). Final figures may yet exceed the 2014 record of 224,000 hectares.

"Eradication has been close to zero," UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov reported to the international donors’ conference in Vienna, Austria on Thursday.

How did it come to this?

Though the 2001 invasion managed to overthrow the Taliban government, the US failed to capture or kill Bin Laden – the alleged mastermind behind 9/11 – until 10 years later. For a month, US troops combed the “black caves” of Tora Bora, on the border with Pakistan, where Bin Laden was believed to be hiding.

Despite Bush’s campaign promise to end “nation-building” missions, American and NATO soldiers soon found themselves in a classic counter-insurgency campaign, conducting patrols from firebases in Afghan countryside and launching offensives against the ever-elusive Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.

US commanders in Afghanistan kept asking for more troops, but almost all of Washington’s strength was tied down in Iraq, after the 2003 invasion followed a similar course of events, from quick victory to quagmire. Through a combination of a “surge” in troop numbers and payoffs to local leaders, the US managed to neutralize most of the insurgency in Iraq. Upon his election, Obama implemented a similar program in Afghanistan.

In May 2011, a Navy SEAL team raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama Bin Laden, according to the US government. This accomplished the war’s primary objective, albeit nearly a decade later. With Bin Laden’s reported demise, Obama announced a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Combat operations were officially declared over in December 2014.

Someone forgot to tell the Taliban, however. In May 2015, a US drone strike in Pakistan killed the group’s leader, Mohammad Mansour.

“It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time, urging the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. The former finance minister during Karzai’s first term, Ghani was elected in 2014 after a controversial runoff against Abdullah Abdullah.

Instead, the Taliban appointed Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as their new leader and launched a new offensive. In September 2015, the group captured Kunduz, a major city in the north near the border with Tajikistan. They were pushed out after two weeks of heavy fighting, in the course of which US planes destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF).

A year later, the Taliban were in Kunduz again, planting their flag in the city’s main square.

Casualties of War

Over 4,000 coalition soldiers and 15,000 Afghan troops have died over the course of the Operation Enduring Freedom. US casualties over those 4,830 days were 2,356 killed and 19,950 wounded. Taliban casualties have been estimated at between 25,000 and 40,000.

Since then, in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the US has suffered 24 killed and 124 wounded, according to the Pentagon. NATO allies lost another seven people.

Estimates of civilian deaths have ranged from 31,000 (Watson Institute for International Studies) to as high as 170,000 (“Body Count”, by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War).

By way of comparison, the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-89 resulted in 14,000 Soviet deaths, 75-90,000 mujahideen killed, and civilian casualties estimated at between 850,000 and 2 million.

Into thin air

At this week’s donor conference in Austria, US and the EU promised $15 billion to fund the Afghan government over the next four years.

The cost of the war in Afghanistan has been estimated at $685.6 billion by the US Congressional research service (CRS). The long-term cost may be as much as $6 trillion, when bringing into account “long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs,” according to a 2013 estimate by Linda Bilmes of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Billions of dollars earmarked for Afghan “reconstruction” were spent on airplanes that ended up being sold for scrap, $30 million gas stations, and drug interdiction planes that never took off, as documented by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR).

Anti-narcotic efforts alone cost over $8.4 billion, without anything to show for it. Afghanistan today produces over 90 percent of the world’s heroin, in greater quantities than before 2001.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the war in Afghanistan is that the US ended up fighting the same people it used to back during the Cold War. In the late 1970s, Washington covertly supported Islamist rebels in order to draw the USSR into a “Vietnam-like quagmire.” After the Soviet retreat in 1989, those rebels – the mujahideen – started fighting among themselves, with the Taliban eventually emerging as the dominant faction.