Juan Cole Military

What the U.S. Could’ve Done With the $2 Trillion Spent on the Afghanistan War

Rather than leave 240,000 people dead, the U.S. could have greened half its electrical grid--for starters.
[Screen shot / YouTube]

By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

The Costs of War Project at Brown University has just brought out a new report on Afghanistan.

The September 11, 2001 attacks were launched from Khost and Qandahar in Afghanistan by al-Qaeda, though it is not clear that this organization of Arab expatriates informed their Taliban hosts of what they were planning. The operation involved hijacking commercial airliners and using them as massive suicide bombs. It cost $500,000 or so to pull off, and killed nearly 3,000 persons.

It appears that in response the United States spent $2.261 trillion and created a situation in which between 238,050 and 241,050 persons died, including over 71,000 civilian noncombatants. In recent years, massive US bombing raids have been killing more civilians than have attacks by the Taliban. The US did not kill all those people, but created the conditions in which they were killed.

The project is directed by Neta C. Crawford, Catherine Lutz, and Stephanie Savell.

The total Congressionally appropriated spending includes $933 billion for the Department of Defense Office of Contingency Operations, which has been branded the Pentagon’s slush fund.

They break down the expenditures 2001 to 2021 this way:

Defense Department Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) (War) Budget $933 bn.

State Department OCO (War) Budget $59 bn.

Defense Department Base Budget War-Related Increases $443 bn.

Veterans Care for Afghan War Vets $296 bn.

Estimated Interest on War Borrowing $530 bn.

TOTAL in Billions of Current Dollars $2,261* trillion

*Rounded to nearest billion

I think that notation about “rounding to the nearest billion” says it all. A billion is a rounding error here.

The most heartbreaking expenditure here is $296 bn. for Veterans Care. That is for warriors who were seriously injured in the war. It will go on growing through the rest of their lives.

The Afghanistan War left around 20,000 US soldiers wounded. Typically, that means they were injured badly enough to have to go to hospital. Of course, even then, some just required some stitches or rest from a concussion. Some, however, will require extra medical care the rest of their lives.

We could have avoided our war dead in Afghanistan and our wounded warriors by just getting out in the summer of 2002, in an enormous savings to our country in blood and treasure.

Mind you, forgiving all student debt in the US is estimated to cost $1.6 trillion. So we could have paid for that and had $600 billion left over.

The price of a fully renewable electrical grid is estimated at $4.6 trillion. So if we had avoided the Afghanistan War we could have paid for half of it already.

I don’t think the initial US intervention in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda was a boondoggle. I supported it at the time and still do. I was shocked and amazed, though, when after the Taliban were overthrown, the Bush administration decided to double down and occupy the country for years on end. Why, I asked myself, would you do that?

I think then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was trying to encircle the Russian Federation so that it did not reemerge as a peer power. I don’t think the US military mission in Afghanistan had much to do with that country, which is landlocked, desperately poor, entirely lacking in resources and of no intrinsic interest to the US.

Much of the money spent in Afghanistan was wasted, and disappeared into a fog of corruption.

Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft: “Twenty years of America’s War in Afghanistan”

Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole is a public intellectual, prominent blogger and essayist, and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.


  1. I watched the World Trade Center towers burn and interviewed survivors that day, but I thought now and still think that terrorism must be dealt with as a civilian criminal law enforcement matter. Those who commit terrorist acts are criminals breaking established laws that apply to all civilians and should be investigated, arrested and tried in civilian courts and, when convicted, put in civilian prisons. This is because terrorism is a crime aimed at destabilizing the rules, conventions, stability and balance of civil society, especially in one that aspires to democracy. When a democratic society reacts to terroristic acts by abandoning its established civilian laws, law enforcement agencies, public trials and prisons in favor of the expediency of open-ended, undeclared and covert operations by its military and “intelligence” agencies, the terrorists have accomplished their aim. The very act of resorting to such non-civilian and undemocratic means reveals the underlying weakness and lack of confidence in its own institutions of the society being attacked. When President Bush in response to 9/11 declared a “War on Terror, “not just rhetorically but as a matter of law, he and we lost that war and are still losing it.

    1. Dear Sir!

      You took the words right out of my mind – 1 to 1 and copy/paste.

      Excellent regards,

      1. Thank you. And I would add that this “civilian law enforcement” approach is basically what was mostly has been followed by most European countries, including during the 1970s and 80s when the terror threat there was much greater than it has ever been in the US. Clearly the European approach has been both more successful, and much less costly and damaging to their societies than the US’s “War on Terror.” The difference is no doubt that we’re still trying to maintain a world empire while they gave that up that nonsense years ago.

  2. I was reading today that of the 14 Trillion dollars spend on the Covid nightmare, only 1.4 Trillion went to the 99 percent with the remaining 12+ Trillion going to the richest 1 percent. If you broke that down to the individual that 14 Trillion would equal something around 35,000 for every man, woman and child in America. Think about that for a moment and despair.

    2 Trillion and twenty years…thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Afghani’s live lost for absolutely nothing what so ever that I can perceive. Now we just sub -contract the war to the mercenaries and the CIA so they can run their heroin to America’s inner-cities….nice.

    What isn’t utterly rotten and corrupted in the United States these days. What isn’t abused, used, or killed to ensure profits for the few. No moral or ethical center to be found, either among the government or the people. Such basic decencies have been lost among the greed, ignorance, brainwashing and the cult of me. The very idea of “doing the right thing” has been lost altogether in the greed and the pain and suffering that greed engenders.

    We are a ship taking on water, led by monsters and psychopaths with a population of ignorant sheep totally incapable of anything but whining. Nobody seems to even realize positive change on any level isn’t even possible anymore and hasn’t been for decades.

    This country and this world is in for nothing short of a reckoning and that event comes closer by the day and at the end of it, awaits hell. Stand for nothing, believe what you are told, let others do your thinking and this is where you end up. Congratulations America, you failed massively.

    1. I don’t disagree necessarily with your opinion, but it would be helpful to note where you got the figures from your first paragraph. Is that global? US?

      And when you say 12 trillion to top 1 percent, do you mean through the stock market mainly?

  3. Afghanistan is relatively close to China. We know that Uyghur fighters from Xinjiang fought with the Afghan mujahidin and also fought in Syria with ISIS/Al Qaeda. We also know that the East Turkestan movement (Xinjiang Muslim seperatists) is at least partially funded by the US NED. Thus, I suspect that one reason to remain in Afghanistan is for its utility as a base to attack China.

  4. What a disappointment to see Juan (“Bomb Libya”) Cole on Robert Scheer’s new website. Here we see him hypocritically tsk-tsking the Afghan war, a war which, as he himself states, he supported at the outset and still does. (Work out the logic of that, kids…)

    Even accepting the official 9/11 fairy tale, which I did at the time, I was dead against the Afghan intervention, among other reasons because there was no evidence whatsoever of any responsibility for those events on their part, but also, indeed, as Lee Camp says elsewhere, because terrorist attacks should be dealt with as police matters.

    So, what does Prof. Cole say at the start of his piece? “The September 11, 2001 attacks were launched from Khost and Qandahar in Afghanistan by al-Qaeda.” And where, pray, is the evidence of this?

    Even Noam Chomsky, who is allergic to “conspiracy theories,” has said publicly many times that no persuasive evidence–not a whit, only assertions and obviously fake videos–has ever been presented demonstrating Osama Bin Laden’s or “Al Qaeda’s” involvement in the attacks.

    Cole is a fake-opposition disinformer.

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