Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Calling U.S. Operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “Endless Wars”

Why do politicians and everyday Americans use the term “endless wars” when they talk about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria? Clearly, the aversion to those wars stems from more than their longevity. As one Afghanistan veteran and Purple Heart recipient reflected, “it is a lot of wasted lives and money and time and effort spent to accomplish a goal we never accomplished.” In other words, the phrase “endless wars” suggests that the United States continues to expend an unacceptable amount of resources on unclear objectives with little to show for it as insurgencies continue to devastate populations and degrade stability in those countries.

That generalization ignores the active effort by the military to reduce the financial and human cost of its operations while still pursuing counterinsurgency objectives against ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other actors. A closer look at past and ongoing operations shows that the U.S. military was able to reduce the American commitment of blood and treasure by changing the way it fights in the region. While still active wars, the only aspect of them that has remained the same is their locations. Calling operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “endless wars” is a bad idea because it fails to distinguish between the fundamental changes cost and casualties between different phases of the operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.  

Though accounting for expenses is a necessary component of deciding whether or not to continue operations in these countries, the ultimate determination should be based on whether or not the United States can achieve clearly defined objectives. Unfortunately, it appears that this never happened. As a result, the debate goes on, but seen by the reductions in cost and casualties, expenses should play less of role in that debate.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria can be split into two phases. For Afghanistan, the first phase of the U.S.-led mission from October 7, 2001, to December 31, 2014, was called Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which accompanied the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. The second was Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS), which began immediately after OEF and is ongoing. For Iraq, the first phase was called Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) from March 19, 2003, to August 31, 2010. The second was called Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), began June 15, 2014, is ongoing, and included Syria in its area of responsibility given U.S. counter-ISIS operations. The costs in terms of human life and financing for the wars both dropped dramatically when these operations entered their second phases. American casualties decreased dramatically. OEF had an average KIA rate of 142 Americans KIA per year, while the OFS rate is 16 KIA per year. OIF had an average KIA rate of 465 Americans KIA per year, while the OIR rate is 16 KIA per year. Adjusted for casualties and troop level per year, troops in Afghanistan sustained about 1.2 U.S. fatalities per 1,000 troops in 2001 and peaked in 2013 with 12.8 U.S. fatalities per 1,000 troops. The second operation in Afghanistan began with 2.2 fatalities per 1,000 troops and is currently at 1.6. For the initial operation in Iraq, the number started at 4.3 fatalities per 1,000 troops, peaked in 2006 at 6.5 per 1,000, and dropped to 1.3 in 2011. At the beginning of the follow-on operation in Iraq in 2015, the number was 2.7, it climbed to 5 in 2016, and has since decreased to 1.1 deaths per 1,000 troops.

Likewise, the financial burdens of both wars decreased dramatically after the first phases. According to a Department of Defense (DoD) report on the Cost of War since 2001, in their first phases, OIF and OEF obligated funding combined for about $1.3 trillion, while the second phase operations, OIR and OEF, have cost about $210 billion through March 31, 2019. In other words, the second phases in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing on average about $45.4 billion a year, or less than 0.01% of the total DoD budget authority. But the real costs are likely much less than this. The Congressional Budget Office’s (October 2018) report on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding suggests that the OCO funds actually used to finance operations, force protection, train and equip missions instead of DoD base budget activities is less. Average yearly funding from 2006 to 2014 was $107.3 billion. From 2014 to the present day the average drops to $21.2 billion.

The U.S. reduced the human and financial costs of the wars because it changed the way it fought. It drew down its force levels significantly from 2012 to 2015 in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The operation changed from over 100,000 American soldiers in each country “winning hearts and minds” to a lighter footprint, one where – according to a former Special Operations Commander, “Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for US VEO [Violent Extremist Organizations]-focused operations inAfghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America – essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found.” With the departure of thousands of troops removed from the theater, it is no surprise that casualties and costs dropped.

A similar growth in reliance on Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) has also reduced costs. In Afghanistan, the Air Forces Central Command’s Air Power Statistics show that annual strike aircraft sorties – air missions – for piloted vehicles from 2015-2019 were below 2014 levels. At the same time, the number of weapons released from both manned and RPA strike assets in 2019 are nearly three times higher than they were in 2014. One possible explanation for this is that RPAs are making up a larger proportion of strikes. However, the story is not the same in Iraq, where sorties from manned strike aircraft are at nearly half their 2015 levels and numbers of weapons released for manned and RPA strike assets continue to fall. That said, improvements in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting have enhanced the efficacy of strikes across the board.

Second, the U.S. changed tact from broad nation-building in the first phase to a narrowly focused train, equip and assist mission in the second phase of each conflict. This change prioritized developing national security forces and other local partners that would take on the brunt of the fighting on the ground with air support from U.S. Special Forces and aircraft. Use of resources for programs like the Economic Support Fund and the Commander’s Emergency Response Program in Afghanistan also decreased. Instead, the U.S. Army recently created and deployed its first Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), a unit of about 800 personnel designed to better train and advise local forces than the previous unit of choice– a 4,500-soldier brigade combat team. Though the results of the change are unclear, a majority of the on-the-ground fighting and casualties of the second phases of the wars was taken on by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The term “Forever Wars” is misleading because it does not reflect the marked change in U.S. strategy, troop presence, and resource burden between these wars’ first phase and subsequent U.S. efforts to support domestic forces and continue counterinsurgency operations with a lighter footprint. Major changes to tactics and the overall strategy of the wars have sharply reduced the number of casualties and the cost of funding the wars themselves. Whether or not those lower costs justify the ongoing operations in the Middle East is an entirely different question, one that is dependent on achievable objectives tied to U.S. national interests. The type of war that Americans grew tired of – with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in-theater – ended back in 2014.  Likewise, calling the implications tied to the phrase “endless wars” have become dated. It would be more accurate to call them evolving wars, whether they are justified or not.

(Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Neysa Canfield)

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Max Molot, "Bad Idea: Calling U.S. Operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “Endless Wars”," Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 7, 2020, last modified January 7, 2020, https://defense360.csis.org/bad-idea-calling-u-s-operations-in-afghanistan-iraq-and-syria-endless-wars/.