Afghanistan: Two decades of conflict and tens of thousands dead – was it worth it?

Jul 3, 2021 News

Afghanistan: Two decades of conflict and tens of thousands dead – was it worth it?

But both of these conflicts have shared a number of clear similarities.

Firstly, it was the leaders of the invasion – the USA – who paid dearest for the conflicts, alongside their British allies; at the peak, these countries represented three-quarters of all troops in Afghanistan and saw 80 per cent of all casualties.

However, 157 Canadian, 85 French, 53 German and 48 Italian soldiers would be amongst the dead in what ended up being a more united coalition than in Iraq.

Secondly, the wars saw the catastrophic effectiveness of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in grinding down the coalition. In Afghanistan, around 40 per cent of all deaths can be attributed to IEDs; a similar proportion to Iraq.

And finally, contractors – effectively “outsourced” military personnel, engineers and other workers – would also become a key aspect of both wars. In Afghanistan, one estimate suggests that 3,800 contractors died in the conflict – higher than the death count for allied forces operating in the country.

Where coalition deaths have been carefully recorded, analysed and commemorated, the cost to Afghanistan’s own forces and civilians is more patchy.

As coalition forces have reduced in recent years, deaths among local forces have escalated.

In 2020, 10,900 Afghani soldiers are estimated to have died; around a fifth of total deaths throughout the entire conflict, according to the Brookings Institute.

The same trend has been seen in civilian deaths since they were first recorded by the United Nations in 2009.

As power gaps began emerging with the phased retreat, violence against civilians only increased, culminating in the bloodiest year of the conflict in 2018 when 3,803 deaths were recorded.

Once “enemy combatants” and aid workers are included, plus attempts to fill in gaps on civilian deaths not reflected in the official UN count, Brown University’s Watson Institute puts the total death toll at 157,000.

However, these numbers are best estimates last compiled at the end of 2019. With the violence far from over, it is likely the final toll will continue to go up until one side can finally declare victory.

US Marines wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand, July 2009

Credit: MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images


Defence & Security Correspondent

Britain’s war in Helmand sputtered to a close in 2014 after multiple losses and few gains. Dominic Nicholls, The Telegraph’s Defence Correspondent, saw with his own eyes how and why the plans disintegrated.

Watch his account below:

Embedded with troops in the poppy-growing region, his tour covered a long winter just two years after Britain’s bloodiest day.

The army had become bogged down, and the disconnect between politicians in Westminster and soldiers in southern Afghanistan was growing.

The realisation was setting in: he was at the heart of an unwinnable war.

An air insertion by British soldiers and Afghan police, targeting insurgents in Helmand province as Operation Zamary Kargha, November 2010

Credit: Sgt. Rupert Frere RLC, ISAF


Defence & Security Correspondent

The British Army in 2006 in Afghanistan had similar kit to that used when the first Gulf War was fought in 1991: the same rifle, body armour, camouflage pattern and vehicles.

Deploying units were pushed through training mechanisms optimised for the Cold War era, minimally updated after the experience of the Balkan deployments in the 1990s.

And coursing through the veins of the whole organisation was a very British trait: the idea that ‘Brits did things differently’ and needed only soft hats and winning smiles to prevail was an early casualty of the campaigns.

The experiences in Afghanistan led to a sharp but necessary correction.  

Any disdain for our American counterparts, in their armoured vehicles and body armour, evaporated as the casualties, especially from the hopelessly ill-equipped Snatch Landrovers, started to mount.

The Snatch Landrover (left) sacrificed troop protection for increased mobility. It was superseded by the heavier Mastiff transport (right), first seen in 2006

By the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, a soldier carrying the equipment then issued to troops as standard would have seemed to his, and increasingly her, 2006 cousin as alien as a warrior of science-fiction fantasy.

The much larger (but heavier) Osprey body armour no longer relied on the enemy being a good shot (the so-called Enhanced Combat Body Armour it replaced comprised a small plate about the size of a paperback book seated over the heart). 

Groin protection and specially designed microbial underwear helped protect the femoral artery and minimised infections from any dirt blasted into the body from IEDs. Heavily protected vehicles such as Mastiff, Ridgeback and Bulldog (known as the ‘dogs of war’) significantly reduced casualties.

On the offensive side, the data available from drones, sometimes, like Black Hornet, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, meant troops in contact had a better idea of what was going on than at any time in the past.

The PD-100 Personal Reconnaissance System with the Black Hornet 2 Nano airborne sensor, which has infra red and HD filming capacity, transmitting in real time, weighs just over 2 grams and can fly for 25 minutes – deployed in 2017

Credit: Anthony Upton

Everything shifted better to support soldiers on the ground: headquarters staff received more intelligence than ever before and were able to filter it faster, to push to troops, who were better protected, trained and supported.

But was it enough to win a war?

A US Army soldier aboard a Chinook helicopter looks out over Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2021

Credit: Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times/Redux/eyevine


in Yakawlang

Residents of Yakawlang remember well what happened when the Taliban came in December 2000. When the militants took the town in Afghanistan’s central highlands after heavy fighting, they went house to house rounding up men.

Scores of captives were herded together just outside the town and executed in the snow. Estimates of the dead reach as high as 300.

More than 20 years later and the movement that conducted the Yakawlang massacre is buoyant, after once having seemed obliterated by America’s military might. The movement has a political office in Doha where diplomats pay their respects and try to persuade it to engage in peace talks.

The Taliban claim to be committed to negotiations, but on the battlefield its military commanders have made a string of sweeping rural gains as American and Nato troops have headed for the exits. The Afghan forces built up at great international expense have often appeared powerless to stop the offensive.

For those who remember the old Taliban and wonder whether they have changed, or are still bent on violent conquest and repression, it is a troubling time.

Taliban fighters walk as they celebrate a ceasefire in Nangarhar province, June 2018

Credit: REUTERS/Parwiz

“What I have seen of Taliban behaviour in the past and what we have seen of their long insurgency, it shows that they are thirsty for power, not thirsty for peace,” says Mohammad Reza, a shopkeeper who was in Yakawlang at the time of the massacre.

“With the districts falling, we don’t feel that the government can protect us. They are not organised within themselves, the Afghan government and army. With the American forces leaving, there may be a change in morale with the Afghan forces.”

“When the Americans left our fears grew,” added Syed Anwar, a local elder, aged 71. “The Taliban have not changed, they may have become worse.

“We are disappointed, in fact betrayed, that the Americans have left. We were so happy when they came. Now they have left us halfway. We have not stood up on our own two feet.”

With the Americans having now left their longest war, the question of how much will remain of the fragile Afghan republic they helped build hangs heavy.

Oil tankers erupt in flames, following a rocket by suspected Taliban militants, Kabul, July 2014

In Kabul, many of the liberal educated elite who have flourished in the past two decades are already voting with their feet, trying desperately to get to Turkey, Europe, America or India. A campaign of assassinations against civil servants, journalists and activists has spread panic.

Educated women especially feel a return of the Taliban, or conservative warlords and strongmen, will bring a reversal of the fragile gains of the past two decades.

“We don’t think that we have a future here,” one 28-year-old university graduate and journalist told The Telegraph in February. “When I was a teenager, I thought we will remake Afghanistan and resolve all the problems we had. But when I got older, the problems got bigger and I think that the problem is more than us.”

The Afghan government has re-activated the country’s controversial civilian militias as a way to oppose the Taliban

The Taliban’s stated aim of imposing a true Islamic system sounds to many to be little different from their 1990s regime. Yet there are others, many in the countryside where the war has been largely fought, who are desperate for peace and ready to try compromise.

Afghanistan’s economic stats show that modest progress has been made in the past two decades, but the country remains one of the poorest in the world. Per capita gross national income rose from $450 in 2009 to $660 in 2013, only to now fall back to $530.

Three-quarters of the government budget is funded by international aid. Corruption is rife. The World Bank reckons two-fifths were in poverty in 2011 and that figure had risen to 55 per cent by 2016. School enrolment figures jumped in the early years of the international campaign, but are dipping again with the growing violence.

Few believe there is a military answer to Afghanistan’s misery, but the peace process started by Donald Trump appears stalled while the Taliban wait to see how far their offensive takes them. Fighting rather than talking will dominate 2021 and probably 2022, diplomats fear.

The insurgents are not an unstoppable military force, especially if the international community keeps funding the Afghan government, yet the militants have momentum and Kabul appears weak and divided. As the Taliban have captured rural districts in recent weeks, communities have vowed to raise their own militias to defend themselves if the government cannot. Those in Yakawlang are no different.

Twenty years after the Americans and their Nato allies first arrived and raised such high hopes among many Afghans, they are now faced with the prospect of rearming and a return to the anarchy and civil war of the 1990s.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, on the latter’s state visit to Beijing, October 28, 2014

Credit: Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images


It was a phone call that could have changed history.

On September 11, 2001, the young president of Russia picked up the hotline in the Kremlin and dialled George W Bush to offer unconditional Russian support for the US response to that day’s terrorist attacks.

Two weeks later, Vladimir Putin overruled his own generals to allow the United States to support its campaign in Afghanistan – daringly upending nearly two centuries of Russian and Soviet foreign policy doctrine in the name of a brave new world in which Cold War adversaries would fight together on the side of “civilisation” against “terror”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin proffers the hand of friendship to US President George W Bush at their first meeting, June 2001


The announcement fitted the drama of the moment; it was nothing less than an end to the Great Game in Central Asia.

Two decades on, it sounds like a fairy tale.

While two generations of American and allied troops and Taliban fighters fought and bled in the Hindu Kush, the country and the world around them changed dramatically.

Mr Putin’s Russia, via a path too long to recount here, has gone from nascent US ally to resurgent and determined adversary.

China, in 2001 still an ascendency on the horizon, has very much arrived as a global superpower. Under Xi Jinping it too is looking to assert its regional dominance as the US leaves the region.

Both have overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, agendas.

Pakistani Muslims burn the American flag during a demonstration protesting against the US-led air strikes on Afghanistan, October 2001


For Russia, the American presence was irritating, but useful in dampening the threat of Islamist militancy to the former Soviet republics on its southern flank.

Mr Putin is hardly likely to try to fill the vacuum in military, economic and political support vacated by the Americans. But he is diligently backing every Afghan horse he can in a bid to maximise Russian influence in their absence. In January a Taliban delegation visited Moscow, to the fury of the Afghan government. Russian diplomats are also cultivating local strongmen in the Tajik and Uzbek regions of the north of the country.

China, too, has security objectives: it principally wants to prevent Afghanistan-based Islamist groups infiltrating the Uighur and other Turkic-speaking minorities in Xinjiang; but it also wants to provide enough stability to realise its vision of a new Silk Road through Asia; and, more nebulously, to assert its regional dominance.

Unlike Russia, China has the vast economic resources, and the ambition, to make a stab at replacing the US civil and development role inside Afghanistan. It is already one of the largest investors in Afghanistan’s mineral sector, and is building roads inside the country.

There are plenty of players to keep the Great Game in Afghanistan going for many years to come, with or without the West.

Anti-war protesters march in a demonstration in central London, March 22, 2003

Credit: REUTERS/Paul McErlane

And what of the United States – and the Nato alliance – itself?

Afghanistan is unlikely to be the graveyard of the American empire.

But after 20 years, more than 3,500 lives, and countless billions of dollars, there is no way of hiding the embarrassment of defeat.

And while the blow to US prestige is unlikely to parallel that of Vietnam – or the Soviet Union’s own withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 – the implications for the country itself are at least as unpredictable.

The biggest casualty may be an idea: the noble ambition to fight a “good war”, not for the Great Game between empires, but for the betterment of man.

Afghanistan was not the first war sold as such, but it was the longest waged by Western powers since 1945. It will be a long time before public support for such projects recovers from failures there and in Iraq.

Just like Mr Putin’s phone call to George W Bush, that belongs to a different era.

Do you have a question about Afghanistan? Leave it in the comments section below and our writers will reply to them on Monday July 5.

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