US Wars
Image Credit: Gulf News / File Photos

Question: Has America ever won a war? Since 1945, when the US and its allies vanquished Axis powers at the end of World War II, America has very rarely achieved meaningful victory in an armed conflict.

The US has fought five major wars — Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan. Only the Gulf War in 1991 can really be labelled as a clear triumph.

What happened to America’s military might?

The circumstances surrounding US withdrawals from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan vary considerably, as do the timetables for each. Given the unsatisfying conclusions, spilling all the blood and treasure in US military involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan has been subject of closer scrutiny.

Here's an overview of 3 of the most recent, and costliest wars the US found itself in:


Period when the US military was involved:

1964 to 1973

What triggered the US involvement:

The Vietnam war has been, and always be, one of the most important events since World War II. Most historians say the Vietnam War started in the 1960s. However, the conflict in Southeast Asia had its roots in the French colonisation, when Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, on May 7, 1954, effectively ending the 7-1/2-year Indochina War.

WILL TO FIGHT: US Marines carry their dead and wounded to a waiting helicopter near the western edge of the demilitarized zone in South Vietnam on June 21, 1968. Image Credit: AP

As far as the United States is concerned, we are ready to stop fighting tonight if they (North Vietnamese) are ready to stop fighting. But we are not ready to stop our side of the war only to encourage them to escalate their side of the war.

- President Lyndon Johnson, December 19, 1967

Two months later, in July 1954, world powers agreed to a divided Vietnam a conference in Geneva. Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh, controlled the North. The US supported an anticommunist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem in the South.

US Soldiers Vietnam War
NAM DROPOFF: US soldiers are dropped off by helicopter to join South Vietnamese ground troops to advance in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh, northwest of Saigon near the Cambodian border, in March 1965 during the Vietnam War.

Cost of war:

$168 billion ($1 trillion in today's dollars)

US lives lost:

58,365 American soldiers

(Source: Johns Hopkins University)

Local lives lost:

365,000 Vietnamese civilians

Circumstances leading to or surrounding withdrawal:

On November 5, 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president, promising to end the war in Vietnam. But on April 30, 1970, Nixon announced the expansion of the war into Cambodia. On May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State were shot by National Guardsmen during a protest.

Public support for further US involvement in Vietnam was not there — young Americans are dying in Vietnam’s jungles, while other young Americans are dying protesting American presence in Vietnam. On January 27, 1973 a cease-fire agreement was reached between US and North Vietnam, and US prisoners of war (POWs) began to return home. The last US combat troops left South Vietnam in 1973.

Final withdrawal date:

March 29, 1973

(Last US combat troops left South Vietnam)

I have asked for this radio and television time tonight for the purpose of announcing that we today have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honour in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia.

- US President Richard Nixon, January 23, 1973


Period when the US military was involved:

2002 to 2021

What triggered the US involvement:

Reeling from the 2001 Al Qaida attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York, the United States targeted Iraq, believing that Saddam Hussain’s government possessed nuclear weapons [that was later proved wrong], which posed a threat to America. US President George W. Bush also argued that Iraq provided support to Al Qaida.

OPN 200909 IRAQ US
US TROOPS IN IRAQ. In 2003, after the 9/11 attacks on America, President George W. Bush told the UN that Iraq poses a “grave and gathering danger”.

At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

- George W. Bush, US president, March 19, 2003

When the US and Britain were dissatisfied with Iraq’s compliance on UN nuclear inspections, Bush, on March 17, 2003, issued an ultimatum to Saddam to leave the country in 48 hours. Saddam rejected it, and on March 20, the US and its allies attacked Iraq, dragging America into an involvement that last eight years.

US Iraq
US Army soldiers from 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force-Iraq, man a defensive position at Forward Operating Base Union III in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Cost of war:

$1.922 trillion

(Source: Neta Crawford, Boston University, Costs of War project). It includes Pentagon funding for the war, State Department spending, healthcare of Iraq War veterans, and the interest expense on debt incurred to fund 17 years of US military involvement in Iraq.

US lives lost:


(4,500 US military personnel, 3,600 US contractors, 15 US Department of Defence civilians, killed from 2003 to 2011).

Local lives lost:

Up to 200,000

(Source: Cost of War Project)

Circumstances leading to US withdrawal:

The US forces withdrew from Baghdad and other major cities on June 30, 2009, as part of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which set the stage for the end of combat operations on August 31, 2010. US combat troops eventually withdrew on December 18, 2011.

But they returned at the request of the Iraqi government three years later, when Daesh (ISIS) militants overran large parts of the country. After the Daesh defeat at the end of 2017, US forces remained to help prevent a revival of the terror group. The troops will withdraw by the end of 2021, following an agreement between US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.

Final withdrawal date:

December 2021

Our role in Iraq will be ... to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.

- Joe Biden, US president, July 27, 2021


Period when the US military was involved:

2001 to 2021

What triggered the US involvement:

On October 7, 2001, weeks after the Al Qaida attacked the US on September 11, President George W. Bush announced that airstrikes on Taliban and Al Qaida targets in Afghanistan had begun. The airstrikes continued for five days. Bush warned that Operation Enduring Freedom would entail “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”

The attack took place on American soil, but it was an attack on the heart and soul of the civilised world. And the world has come together to fight a new and different war, the first, and we hope the only one, of the 21st century. A war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them.

- President George W. Bush, October 11, 2001
20210816 taliban
Taliban fighters train with their weapons in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan, July 14, 2009. Image Credit: Reuters

After routing the Taliban, the United States and NATO turned to rebuilding the country, spending billions trying to reconstruct a nation already ravaged by two decades of war. But with corruption rampant, hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction money was stolen or misappropriated.

File photo of Osama Binladen with one of his sons.

In May 2011, a US Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In June, Obama announced that he would start bringing American forces home and hand over security duties to the Afghans by 2014. Obama ended major combat operations on Dec. 31, 2014, and transitioned to training and assisting Afghan security forces.

Nearly three years later, President Donald J. Trump said that although his first instinct had been to withdraw all troops, he stressed that any troop withdrawal would be based on combat conditions, not predetermined timelines.  

Cost of war:

$2.3 trillion

US lives lost:


(20,000 servicemen have been wounded)

Local lives lost:

47,245 Afghan civilians

(Source: Report by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs)

Circumstances leading to or surrounding withdrawal:

The United States spent at least $4 billion a year on the Afghan military, but military and police units in Afghanistan were riven by desertions, low recruitment rates, poor morale and the theft of pay and equipment by commanders.

A classified intelligence assessment presented to the Biden administration in spring said Afghanistan could fall largely under Taliban control within two to three years after the departure of international forces. The fall came swifter than that. Taliban fighters took over provincial capitals quickly and moved into Kabul on August 15.

C-17 US air force globemaster afghanistan refugees
This image distributed Courtesy of the US Air Force shows the inside of Reach 871, a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III flown from Kabul to Qatar on August 15, 2021. The plane safely evacuated some 823 Afghans from Kabul late Sunday, according to US defence officials contacted by Defense One. Image Credit: AFP

Final withdrawal date:

August 31, 2021

(Troops withdrew on August 30, a day before the deadline) after 7,262 days.

As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it's time to look at the future, not the past ... I give my word with all of my heart: I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision and the best decision for America. I was not going to extend this forever war. And I was not going to extend a forever exit.

- President Joe Biden, August 31, 2021
US Army Major General Chris Donahue
LAST MAN OUT: US Army Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last US service member to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, on August 30, 2021 in a photograph taken using night vision optics.