- Armament and disarmament
- Conflict, peace and security
- Peace and development
With barely half an hour to go before United States President Joe Biden’s deadline to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan, at 23:29 on 30 August 2021, the last US flight left Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. This marked the end of a 20-year US-led international military presence.
During that time, tens of thousands of international troops had been deployed to help to maintain security in Afghanistan, train Afghan security forces and reconstruct the country. Along with manpower, the USA also invested billions of dollars’ worth of military aid a year for most of the period to strengthen the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF).
This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder presents data on the military aid given by the USA to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2020. It then compares US military aid to the dollar value of Afghanistan’s military expenditure. Finally, the commentary offers some reflections.
Data on Afghanistan’s military expenditure is drawn from the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database. Data on US military aid is from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and the Department of State’s Congressional Budget Justification. This is because SIPRI’s definition of military expenditure includes military aid as part of the donor’s total military spending, and SIPRI thus does not publish disaggregated figures for military aid. The Topical Backgrounder does not cover military aid given to Afghanistan by other donor countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.
After the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, President Biden suggested that the war in Afghanistan had most likely cost the USA more than US$2 trillion. While most of the estimated expenditure was on US military operations, the USA also devoted substantial financial resources to reconstruction activities.
Of all the reported US security-related reconstruction spending in Afghanistan, SIPRI considers five budget lines as military aid. These come from two sources: the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of State (DOS). Between 2001 and 2020, disbursements to Afghanistan from these five funds totalled $72.7 billion in current dollars ($81.6 billion in constant 2019 dollars).
Nearly all (99.2 per cent) of this military aid came from the DOD, through the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF; $71.7 billion in current dollars) created by the US Congress, and a separate Train and Equip Fund ($440 million in current dollars). Together the two funds provided the ANDSF with equipment; supplies; services; training; funding for salaries; and facility and infrastructure repair, renovation and construction.
Military aid to Afghanistan from the DOS was under the International Military Education and Training (IMET), Foreign Military Finance (FMF) and Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) funds, and amounted to about $564 million in current dollars (see figure 1).
US military aid to Afghanistan was initially very low; the DOD and the DOS together spent less than $1 billion annually between 2001 and 2005. By 2008, annual aid outlays picked up to reach $7.4 billion. This uptick in aid coincided with the US becoming a significant troop contributor in multilateral peace operations, indicating increased US involvement in Afghanistan. However, the global financial and economic crisis led to a temporary decrease in aid and, by 2010, aid to Afghanistan had fallen to $5.2 billion (see figure 2).
US military aid to Afghanistan then peaked, reaching almost $9 billion per year in 2011 and again in 2013. This increase in military assistance corresponds to a renewed commitment by the USA and its NATO allies to bolster the ANDSF to be fully responsible for security across the country by the end of 2014.
One well-known aspect of US military aid is the various types of major arms supplied to Afghanistan. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), between 2005 and 2021, around $18.6 billion worth of military equipment was disbursed to the ANDSF through the ASFF.
Afghan military expenditure in the period was only a fraction of total US military aid to Afghanistan. Between 2004 and 2020, the Afghan government’s military expenditure totalled $3.7 billion in current dollars or $3.6 billion in constant 2019 dollars, equivalent to only 4.6 per cent of all US military aid disbursed to Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s average annual spending in 2004–20 was $219 million and, in constant 2019 dollars, never exceeded $270 million in any of the 17 years for which data is available (see figure 3).
The large difference between Afghan military expenditure and US military aid illustrates the often discussed issue of Afghanistan’s reliance on US and foreign support. Even by 2020, when it was clear the USA would withdraw, Afghanistan’s military spending was still only 18 per cent of US military aid.
The US government disbursed almost $73 billion in military aid to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2020, which was almost 20 times the amount of Afghanistan’s own military expenditure. Despite the USA having provided the ANDSF with equipment, training, services, funding for salaries, infrastructure and more, it took the Taliban a little over four months to take over Afghanistan and control Kabul after the announcement in April 2021 that NATO’s Resolute Support Mission would end.
Two key issues stand out after the withdrawal of US and allied forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent rapid defeat of the Afghan military. The first is the future of the Afghan military under a new Taliban government. Much has already been written about the capacity for Afghanistan to generate sustainable revenue to support its public expenditure. The affordability of the Afghan military over the past two decades—irrespective of its effectiveness—was dependent on US support. With the end of US military aid, what will happen to the Afghan military as an institution and how will it be funded? China, Russia and Turkey are a few countries that observers mention as being prepared to replace the void left by the USA and its allies.
Second, SIGAR has routinely warned the US Congress about the waste in US public spending on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. An example of inefficiency is the supply of UH-60A transport helicopters without an adequate number of trained personnel to operate and maintain them. In another case, equipment given to the Afghan forces had no proper operation and maintenance manuals, or manuals only in English. Was there sufficient supervision, oversight and accountability for the disbursement of US military aid in Afghanistan? Can the USA apply the lessons learned from how its military aid was spent in Afghanistan to other military aid recipients, to ensure that it achieves its foreign and defence policy objectives?