With the U.S. military evacuation of Afghanistan completed – bringing America’s longest war to an end – 54% of U.S. adults say the decision to withdraw troops from the country was the right one, while 42% say it was wrong, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the final days of that departure.
The cost of this 20-year military and security engagement has been astronomically high–in lives, in livelihoods and in money–but the Afghans themselves have borne the brunt of the casualties, with over 60,000 members of the security forces killed and nearly twice that many civilians.
In the 20 years since September 11, 2001, the United States has spent more than $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan. That’s $300 million dollars per day, every day, for two decades. Or $50,000 for each of Afghanistan’s 40 million people. In baser terms, Uncle Sam has spent more keeping the Taliban at bay than the net worths of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the 30 richest billionaires in America, combined.
Those headline numbers include $800 billion in direct war-fighting costs and $85 billion to train the vanquished Afghan army, which folded in the weeks since the Pentagon’s sudden early July closure of Bagram Air Force Base eliminated the promise of air support against the advancing Taliban. U.S. taxpayers have been giving Afghan soldiers $750 million a year in payroll. All told, Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates the total spending at $2.26 trillion.
And the costs are even greater in terms of lives lost. There have been 2,500 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan, and nearly 4,000 more U.S. civilian contractors killed. That pales beside the estimated 69,000 Afghan military police, 120,000 civilians killed, plus 51,000 dead opposition fighters.
The cost so far to care for 20,000 U.S. casualties has been $300 billion, with another half-trillion or so expected to come in the years ahead.
So the awkward question that has to be asked is: was it all worth it?
Americans have reacted with mixed emotions to the pull-out of all US troops from Afghanistan. The withdrawal comes nearly 20 years after the US invaded the Central Asian nation in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.
“Afghanistan is a very troubled country. Back in the 60s and early 70s, it was a very modern society for that time period, at least in the larger cities. Now, people are afraid. I’ve met several Afghans in the US and they think it’s just going to lead the country even further down the wrong path,” said US Air Force Reservist Michelle Dunkley, 57, of New Jersey, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2016 and was the head nurse in a medical team. “We spent almost 20 years in that country and we have nothing to show for it. It was not a well thought-out invasion. There was no plan to actually defeat the Taliban.”
The survey, conducted before the U.S. military pullout was completed, also finds that 69% of the public says the United States mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.
The public is also broadly critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan: Only about a quarter (26%) say the administration has done an excellent or good job; 29% say the administration has done an only fair job and 42% say it has done a poor job.
Although the US surrender occurred in February 2020, under the authority of then-President Donald Trump, who has boasted about his prowess as a dealmaker, just 7% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents rate the Biden administration’s performance on Afghanistan positively.
“We’ve been there for too long, and we’ve contributed to more destabilization and deaths of civilians over the course of the last 20 years,” said Isaiah Reeves, 25, of Tennessee, who was about eight years old when his father, an Army Reservist, shipped off to Afghanistan. “I can’t reasonably listen to an argument that we are making the world better by being there.”
“The US military is a hammer and everything looks like a nail,” said Isaiah. “I’m not saying the US should not be involved overseas, but I don’t think the US military is a proper vehicle for that. Over the past 40 years, we’ve been engaged in conflicts in the Middle East: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen. The whole purpose of the establishment of NATO and the UN was to have a more multilateral approach to these issues, and they don’t really do that. The first answer to questions should not be a militaristic solution. It should be more so a diplomatic one.”
“The United States was attacked on 11 September 2001,” said Scott Nolan, 57, of Virginia, who served in the US Navy during the 1980s but did not support extracting US troops from Afghanistan. “Over 2,000 people were killed. It was the worst attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. We still have troops in Japan and in Germany. By taking troops out of Afghanistan, we’re going to lose everything that we fought for.”
Fewer than half of Democrats and Democratic leaners (43%) say Biden’s team has done an excellent or good job.
The survey was conducted as the U.S. was engaged in a massive evacuation effort to bring Americans and Afghan allies of the U.S. out of Afghanistan.
Most of the survey was conducted before the Aug. 26 suicide bombing at Kabul’s international airport that killed as many as 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. (The survey finds little overall change in attitudes before and after the suicide attack.)
With the Taliban now in control of Afghanistan, most Americans believe the situation in that country poses a security threat to the U.S., with 46% saying Taliban control represents a major threat and another 44% saying it is a minor threat. Republicans (61%) are far more likely than Democrats (33%) to view a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a major security threat.
Partisanship is evident in most, though not all, attitudes about the emerging situation in Afghanistan. Views are most polarized when it comes to the decision to withdraw: A sizable majority of Democrats (70%) support the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, while most Republicans (64%) say it was the wrong decision.
Republicans and Democrats also differ (though to a lesser degree) on the initial decision to take military action in Afghanistan two decades ago.
About two-thirds of Republicans (69%) say the initial decision to use U.S. military force in Afghanistan was right, compared with 44% of Democrats.
Republicans have long been more likely than Democrats to view the initial decision as the right one.
Yet there is notable agreement among members of both parties that the U.S. mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.
Nearly identical majorities of Republicans (70%) and Democrats (69%) say the U.S. failed to accomplish its goals in Afghanistan.
A large majority (71%) of Americans say the Biden administration has done a poor (42%) or only fair (29%) job handling the situation in Afghanistan. Just 26% say that the Biden administration has done an excellent (6%) or good job (21%) handling the situation in Afghanistan.
Republicans overwhelmingly rate the administration’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan as poor (77%), with just 7% rating it as either excellent or good. Democratic opinion is more divided: About four-in-ten (43%) rate the job the Biden administration has done as excellent or good, while a narrow majority of Democrats (55%) say that the administration has done an only fair (40%) or poor (15%) job.
Conservative Republicans are more likely than moderate or liberal Republicans (86% vs. 61%) to rate the job the Biden administration has done as poor.
Among Democrats, there are no ideological differences in evaluations of the Biden administration’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan.
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