The true costs of the Afghan war, America's longest and most invisible war

The costs of the War in Afghanistan are astounding and without end, with the war about to enter its 17th year.

Soldiers from D Company of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, and officers from the Afghan National Police, are inserted into the area by two CH-47 Chinooks. (Photo: ResoluteSupportMedia)
Soldiers from D Company of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, and officers from the Afghan National Police, are inserted into the area by two CH-47 Chinooks. (Photo: ResoluteSupportMedia)

How we got here

The War in Afghanistan began with the invasion of the country by U.S. forces on October 7th, 2001. It followed the shock of 9/11 and the decision by President George W. Bush to destroy the terrorist network al-Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden, which was blamed for the horrendous attack on American soil. Bin Laden was reportedly hiding in Afghanistan, protected by the Taliban, which then ruled the country. 


Nearly 17 years and several presidents later, amassing the staggering costs of 2,372 American military deaths, 1,720 U.S. civilians contractor fatalities, over 20,000 troops wounded and likely trillions of dollars spent, the war is still not over.

The War in Afghanistan can be regarded as the longest war the U.S. has ever been involved in. While the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War started in 1954, American troop levels and casualties went up from the early 1960s, with the war ending in 1975.

The fight in Afghanistan, divided between Operation Enduring Freedom (2001–2014) and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (2015–present) is still continuing to cause American casualties. The U.S. suffered 17 casualties in 2017 and four so far in 2018 (as of mid-July). 2017 also saw 10,000 civilian casualties, including those caused by U.S. airstrikes. 

What's the current situation?

At its peak in 2010-2011, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan numbered over 100,000 soldiers. Under President Obama, the troop levels had gone down to 8,400 by 2016. Still, recognizing the fragility of the situation on the ground, Obama did not authorize a complete pullback of the American forces.

In August 2017, President Trump intensified the airstrikes and called for sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in a strategy to train, assist and advise more Afghan fighters. The plan has no end date and increased the number of forces in the country from 8,400 to 14,000. It must be noted that the Taliban, now numbering about 60,000 fighters, rules over a larger amount of land now than it did since when it was kicked out by the initial U.S. war effort in 2001.

How much does the war cost?

As things stand, the Pentagon announced that in 2018, that the war in Afghanistan will cost the taxpayers $45 billion just this year alone. The amount includes about $13 billion for U.S. forces in the country, $5 billion for Afghan forces, $780 million for economic aid and the remaining $26.22 billion for logistical support. If you want to add the costs up, to arrive at some overall figure for the war, estimates range from $841 billion to trillions, depending on the number of factors counted.

 

The lower amount is proposed by Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“One of the striking aspects of American military power is how little serious attention is spent on examining the key elements of its total cost by war and mission, and the linkage between the use of resources and the presence of an effective strategy,” writes Cordesman in his report.

Neta Crawford, the co-director of the Cost of Wars Project at Brown University, sees the spending on the War in Afghanistan to approach $2 trillion since 2001. That doesn’t even include future costs of up to $7.9 trillion like the spending by the Department of Veteran Affairs and the interest on the money Americans borrowed to pay for this military effort. Notably, the U.S. Congress did not pass a tax to finance the war and instead passed the Bush tax cuts.

Reports by the Watson Institute also put the true costs in the trillions. The Institute estimated that $4.8 trillion was spent through 2016, while Harvard economist Lina J.Blimes puts that cost from $4 to $6 trillion.

The exorbitant costs also bear many inefficiencies and wasteful spending, reported by the government accountability agency SIGAR. The overseer found half a billion dollars squandered on planes unusable in Afghanistan, millions spent on unused command and control centers, gas stations that cost almost 90 times more than necessary, among other instances of “outrageous misuse of U.S. taxpayers’ money,” as it states in its 2018 report.

What's next?

What’s next for this war that will not end? Despite the Trump-ordered troop surge, the situation on the ground has not changed much, leading some observers to think that the president is ultimately impatient to have a resolution to the war and will pull back the U.S. forces eventually. Indeed, the White House ordered direct talks with the Taliban, which currently controls from 10% to 45% of the territory, depending on whom you ask, in an effort to create a breakthrough. The Taliban appears willing to talk but no concrete plans have been announced yet. 

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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

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  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

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