KABUL, Afghanistan — For many Afghans like Zohra Atifi, whose husband was killed under Taliban rule, the American invasion in 2001 marked a chance to start over after living under an oppressive regime.
Yet 18 years later, after the U.S. spent nearly $900 billion and more than 147,000 people died, the Taliban are growing more confident of returning to power. The militant group controls or contests half of the country, more territory than any time since they were toppled in 2001. And they’ve come close to a deal with the U.S. that could give them even more power, even after President Donald Trump abruptly put the talks on hold.
What’s worse for the U.S. and its allies: Many Afghans are growing disillusioned with the American-backed regime in Kabul and its inability, along with its foreign allies, to contain not just the Taliban but another deadly insurgent group — the Islamic State. One of Atifi’s sons was killed by Islamic State extremists two years ago.
“The collapse of their brutal regime by the Americans once gave us a hope — a cheerful hope — that we will all again be free of fears and violence like other countries,” Atifi, 45, said at her stone-made house in the capital’s Kart-e-Sakhi neighborhood. “But that didn’t happen.”
The high cost of the war, and the lack of clear gains on the battlefield, have contributed to a growing argument that it’s time for the U.S. to cut its losses and move on. Trump himself has signaled a determination to withdraw from what he’s described as an “endless war,” even as concerns mount in Afghanistan that such a move could lead to an all-out civil war.
“We’ve spent over $30 billion a year in Afghanistan for decades now,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Sunday. “That’s not a sustainable model. We’ve got to get it right.”
Since ousting the Taliban, the U.S. alone has spent about $877 billion dollars until March 2019 to restore stability, rebuild the country and fight the Taliban and other insurgents, according to a report by Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a Pentagon Watchdog. About 14% ($121 billion) was for the reconstruction costs in both the civilian and security sectors.
Despite the sacrifices and significant financial costs, the U.S. efforts have failed to produce a secure or developed Afghanistan, said Afghan lawmaker Breshna Rabi.
“The Taliban are stronger than at any time and are capable of spreading violence everywhere in the country, even under the nose of foreign forces’ headquarters,” said Rabi, who represents Balkh province in the lower house of parliament, and was one of more than 60 women elected in the 2018 poll. “Some of the U.S. billions have been lost to corruption,” she said. “The U.S. money never reached the remote areas to improve the living standards of the poor people.”
The U.S. now has just 14,000 of the 22,673 foreign troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 100,000 in 2011. More than 2,400 U.S. soldiers and 1,144 NATO coalition soldiers have been killed, according to icasualties.org that tracks U.S. and NATO fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, while more than 20,500 American soldiers were wounded, it said.
Afghans have suffered even more. More than 32,000 Afghan civilians have been killed and about 60,000 wounded since 2009 by Taliban bombings, Afghan and foreign airstrikes and in the crossfire, a U.N. report found. A separate 2018 report by Brown University says a total of around 140,000 Afghan forces, civilians and Taliban militants died in the conflict.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told a summit in Davos the toll was far higher: His government estimates more than 45,000 Afghan forces were killed just since he took office in 2014.
Still, Afghanistan has come a long way since the Taliban’s brutal regime was ousted. The media sector is thriving, with more than 1,800 print, broadcast and digital news outlets now operating in the country. Art and music scenes are flourishing, more than 3.5 million Afghan girls have enrolled in schools and many women have entered politics, now accounting for almost a third of 250 parliament seats. All these activities had been previously banned by the Taliban.
Over the years, the conflict has been both positive and negative for the Afghan economy, Tamim Asey, a former deputy defense minister, said by email. U.S. contracts and development aid has boosted incomes, but the ongoing violence had inflicted a heavy human toll.
“The life of the Afghan people is definitely better — their living standards have gone up and at least they have a functioning government and a local economy,” Asey said. “But due to the war economy nothing is sustainable. Everything could fall apart once the U.S. cuts off its aid and withdraws its troops from Afghanistan.”
The agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban would have allowed the U.S. to withdraw about 5,000 troops out of total 14,000 from five bases 135 days after the signing of the deal. More than 10,000 Americans military contractors and more than 8,600 military personnel from 40 NATO allies and non-NATO partners are also in the country to train and advise Afghan forces.
But even as the peace talks were coming to an end, the Taliban intensified its campaign of violence. Trump questioned whether they could negotiate a meaningful agreement: “How many more decades are they willing to fight?” he asked on Twitter.
He received the answer late Thursday — the Taliban addressed the president directly on Twitter, saying he has “yet to grasp the type of nation he is dealing with.” Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed went on to refer to Afghanistan by its infamous epithet, the “graveyard of empires.”
Adding to skepticism that any deal with the Taliban would improve security on the ground, Islamic State — among 20 other terrorist groups active in the country — has continued to cause carnage, mainly targeting civilians. The group emerged in 2015 after the U.S. handed over the security responsibility to the Afghan forces, and has since made significant inroads in the north. It is responsible for carrying out deadly attacks such as the bombing of a wedding party last month that killed 80 people.
Safety aside, food security and shelter also top the country’s challenges, according to a survey conducted by Gallup. Ninety percent of 1,000 interviewed Afghans say its “difficult” to get by on household income and 57% have struggled to afford food in the past year, the report says.
Atifi, whose husband was killed in 1998, now supports her family of seven on just $27 per week. Her second-oldest son died in 2017, one of 20 others who perished in an Islamic State suicide bombing at a wrestling club in Kabul. She doesn’t see much difference no matter who takes power in Afghanistan.
“You tell me what the difference between the Taliban regime and now is?” Atifi said, her voice cracking as tears rolled down her cheeks. “They’re all murderers and they killed my beloved son.”