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Did the U.S. spend $2 trillion to support the Afghan military?
If Your Time is short
The $2 trillion figure is considered credible for the 20-year U.S engagement in Afghanistan, but it includes much more than just training and equipping the military.
The fall of the Afghan military and government to fall was fast — nine days from the time Zaranj became the first provincial capital to be seized by the Taliban.
After the United States’ recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, former U.S. Army Major and former West Virginia state Sen. Richard Ojeda took to Twitter to criticize how U.S. funds were spent in the region.
"2 trillion dollars to train and equip the Afghan military over the past 20 years. They fell in a week," Ojeda, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 2018, said in his Aug. 15 tweet. "It was never about real training. It was about military contractors and corporations raking in the profits. I am numb. I am sure everyone who spent years there feels the same!"
On the day Ojeda sent his tweet, Taliban fighters entered Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the nation, effectively sealing the U.S.-backed government’s downfall.
We wanted to check whether Ojeda was using accurate figures for the money spent on the Afghan military and how quickly the country fell to the Taliban.
We found that Ojeda’s $2 trillion figure covers much more than just training and equipping the Afghan military. (Ojeda did not respond to inquiries for this article by email and phone.)
The $2 trillion figure is close to the headline number from a widely reported study by the Costs of War project, an effort headquartered at Brown University.
The study found that the U.S. spent $2.3 trillion in the region since the post-9/11 military campaign in 2001 and in 2021
But there’s an important caveat, said Heidi Peltier, a contributor to the Costs of War project and a political scientist at Boston University: The figure includes more than just money spent on military equipment and training.
"This is a more inclusive estimate than just the ‘war budget,’" Peltier said. The "war budget," officially known as the budget for "overseas contingency operations," was just over $1 trillion in Afghanistan during that period, she said.
"Once you add veterans’ costs, interest costs, and other increased (Pentagon) expenses, the full cost of the war in Afghanistan surpasses $2 trillion," Peltier said.
The total figure for spending will grow over time, since the $2.3 trillion amount does not include costs for the future care of veterans.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s accounting of 20 years of spending in Afghanistan also undercuts the figure Ojeda tweeted.
The Defense Department spent more than $1.6 trillion between 2001 and March 2021, said Christopher Sherwood, a public affairs specialist with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Sherwood said these funds were spent in a variety of areas, including war operational costs, troop support, and transportation.
But even that figure overshoots the cost to specifically "train and equip the Afghan military," as Ojeda put it.
According to the Costs of War project, the Pentagon spent just over $83 billion within the last two decades specifically to support Afghan military and security forces
In recent years, the amount has been lower than it was in the earlier years of the conflict: The U.S. has spent between $3 billion and $5 billion a year to support Afghan troops in the region, said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We did not spend $2 trillion to train and equip the Afghan military," Harrison said. "The cost of training and equipping the Afghan’s is a relatively small subset of the total cost. The vast majority of the costs for the war were for the operation of our own forces and support for our own service members."
Ojeda has a better case to make with the second part of his statement. The Afghan military fell nine days after the Taliban seized its first provincial capital, Zaranj, on Aug. 5.
Still, the Taliban surge had been building for some time.
Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution, said that saying it took a week or nine days is defensible, he’d be more inclined to call it "a matter of weeks." Signs of the Taliban’s rising power could be seen as far back as May when U.S. troops began to withdraw, he said. In the absence of U.S. troops, the Taliban set up dozens of checkpoints along main highways going in and out of the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban continued to improve their position over the next few months, and at the beginning of August, its forces launched attacks on Herat and Kandahar, two large Afghan cities.
Ojeda said the U.S. had "2 trillion dollars to train and equip the Afghan military over the past 20 years. They fell in a week."
While the U.S. is credibly estimated to have spent more than $2 trillion during its involvement, only a fraction of that -- an estimated $83 billion -- was specifically spent on training and equipping Afghan military and security forces.
Meanwhile, the Afghan military went into something of a freefall about nine days before Kabul fell, but it’s worth noting that the Taliban had begun making steady advances about three months before Kabul’s fall.
We rate this claim Half True.
Amy Sherman contributed to this article.
Richard Ojeda, tweet, Aug. 15, 2021
Cost of War project, "The U.S. Budgetary Costs of the Post-9/11 Wars," Sept. 1, 2021
Quarterly reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Sept. 1
A visual timeline of the Taliban’s advancement, Sept. 1
Email interview with Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Sept. 1, 2021
Email interview with Heidi Peltier, Costs of War project director, Sept. 1, 2021
Email interview with Neta C. Crawford, Cost of War project director, Sept. 2, 2021
Email interview with Christopher Sherwood, spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Aug. 17, 2021
Email interview Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, Sept. 1, 2021
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