Visualising the impact of 20 years of war

Here's what 20 years of war has done to the Afghan people. As the US withdraws its troops, we look at the latest figures on human suffering.

Afghan refugee children in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2, 2015. [REUTERS/Ahmad Masood]

The human cost of war

An estimated 241,000 people have died as a direct result of the war since the US invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, according to the most recent figures from Brown University’s Costs of War. Hundreds of thousands more, mostly civilians, have died due to hunger, disease and injury caused by the devastating war.

Of the people killed, 71,344 were civilians who died on both sides of Afghanistan’s long, porous border with Pakistan. At least 47,245 civilians have died in Afghanistan and 24,099 in Pakistan.

Afghanistan shares a 2,670km (1,659-mile) largely mountainous border with Pakistan that has seen frequent cross-border clashes and US drone attacks.

The Afghan military and police, who have fought alongside the US, are estimated to have lost between 66,000 and 69,000 soldiers. The US and its NATO allies have brought home 3,586 coffins, and at least six times as many wounded veterans, according to a tally kept by The number of rebels, including Taliban fighters, killed is estimated to be 84,191.

An Afghan woman and girl approach US soldiers in Kandahar April 2, 2010. [REUTERS/Tim Wimborne]

Afghanistan continues to be one of the deadliest places in the world to be a child. In the past decade alone, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), has recorded at least 7,792 children killed and 18,662 injured. Many of the wounded children have lost limbs to improvised roadside bombs and air attacks.

Women have paid a heavy price too, with more than 3,000 deaths due to the war and 7,000 injuries since 2010. Last year has been the deadliest for women in Afghanistan in the past decade, with 390 deaths recorded.

At least 2.7 million of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million has been forced to flee due to the war, becoming refugees in neighbouring Pakistan, Iran and beyond. An additional four million are internally displaced according to the UN [PDF].

An Afghan woman wearing a burqa with her children in Kabul, January 22, 2015. [REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail]

2001-2021: How does Afghanistan compare?

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the country has seen modest gains in education, health and women’s rights. Today, life expectancy has improved, maternal mortality rates have been halved, and 27 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament are reserved for women.

Despite these improvements, Afghanistan still ranks second to last in the world, just ahead of Yemen, in the Women Peace and Security Index measuring women's wellbeing across a multitude of indicators. On education, a 2019 report by UNICEF found that 3.7 million children were out of school with 60 percent of them girls.

In addition, most Afghans continue to live in poverty. And despite the US spending over $9bn on counter-narcotics, Afghanistan is producing record quantities of illicit opium, used to create the drug heroin.

Since 2017, The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) have recorded 1,705 violent incidents against civilians. According to their data, for five straight years, Afghan civilians have been attacked on more days throughout the year than not. In 2020, 424 attacks spanning 235 days were recorded across the country.

In February 2020, the US and the Taliban reached a bilateral agreement and in September, the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations formally commenced.

Despite this, attacks on civilians are on the rise. During the first four months of this year, 245 attacks were recorded over 95 days - more than two attacks recorded nearly every single day.

Afghanistan has been ravaged by four decades of war. In 1979, the then-Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the embattled pro-Soviet leaders who had just seized power in Kabul. Over the next decade, the country was a stage for one of the Cold War’s last battles as Soviet troops fought a bloody guerrilla war against the Afghan mujahideen supported by the US and other countries. The Soviets withdrew in 1989 but the civil war they left behind continued.

For the next decade, the county struggled on. Just 12 years after the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan would find itself invaded again, this time by the US.

An Afghan woman walks through a cemetery in Kabul January 30, 2010. [REUTERS/Baz Ratner]
US troops carry the dead body of a NATO soldier, at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, September 16, 2014. [REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail]

The US and NATO's longest war

The US under President George W Bush invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, less than a month after the September 11 attacks in the US. The coalition he led accused the ruling Taliban regime of harbouring Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader who claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The war in Afghanistan spanned nearly 20 years and four US presidents.

Over the 20-year war, 50 NATO and partner nations contributed forces to the missions in Afghanistan. At its peak in 2011, nearly 140,000 US and allied forces were in the country.

Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Nangarhar province, June 16, 2018. [REUTERS/Parwiz]

Who controls what in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a largely mountainous country, land-locked between Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east.

Since the Taliban was toppled in 2001, who controls what territory has changed daily.

When the US and NATO forces announced their withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years, the Taliban moved fast, expanding its control.

In less than 10 days, it swept across every province and all the way to the presidential palace in Kabul.

This animated map shows how and when the Taliban captured 26 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals.

A US Reaper drone sits armed with Hellfire missiles and a 500-pound bomb at Kandahar Airfield, March 9, 2016. [REUTERS/Josh Smith]

US military presence in the region

While the US and its allies have pulled out nearly all of their troops on the ground, the US is expected to use its comprehensive air force, drones and long-range weapons for targeted operations across the country.

Several countries in the Middle East are home to US air and naval bases that are within striking distance of Afghanistan. In addition, the US still has around 2,500 soldiers on the ground in Iraq - down from a peak of 165,000 in 2007 - and thousands more in bases across the Middle East and North Africa.

According to the US Air Force [PDF], from 2013 to 2019 it conducted nearly 70,000 manned strike aircraft sorties over Afghanistan and dropped nearly 27,000 bombs from manned and remotely piloted aircraft.

An Afghan National Army soldier keeps watch at a checkpost in Logar province, February 16, 2016. [REUTERS/Omar Sobhani]

The economic cost of war

The war in Afghanistan is estimated to have cost the US $2.26 trillion to date, according to the Cost of War project. The bulk of the spending, $933bn, was allocated to the US Department of Defense war budget, later supplemented by another $443bn.

The rest of the money includes $296bn for veterans’ medical and disability care and $59bn towards the Department of State’s war budget. The US has also paid some $530bn in interest for its heavy borrowing throughout the war. The US has spent $144bn on Afghanistan reconstruction initiatives.

These figures do not include the lifetime care for veterans nor future interest payments, which means even after the US leaves Afghanistan it will continue to pay for the war.