Credit for Thumbnail: Sohaib Ghyasi
August 30, 2021, marks the date the American military left Afghanistan, officially closing the curtains of this long running war. After this withdrawal, the Taliban almost immediately returned to power within the nation. As a result of this swift shift in power, many have been worried about the following months as the stability of Afghanistan is put into question. As we slowly see the ramifications of this withdrawal, it is critical we fully understand the reasons for these groundbreaking developments.
They Started It!
Firstly, why did America begin this war in the first place? Some would liken it to a crusade while others, fruitless bloodshed. One way to view the beginnings of this war is through the lens of post-9/11 America. September 11, 2001 was etched into the annals of history when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by al-Qaeda operatives, leaving thousands of people dead (Laub & Maizland, 2021). This is considered by many to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. In this case, less of a straw and more of the weight of the collective grievances of the American people. In response, George Bush, who was president at the time, promised to “win the war against terrorism” and take righteous vengeance on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (Laub & Maizland, 2021).
Ever since then, terrorism and the fight against sustaining peace for America has been used as justification for continued warfare. Laub & Maizland (2021) write, on February 17, 2009, Barack Obama would provide 17,000 troops to Afghanistan’s war fields, restating Afghanistan’s role in America’s “front against terrorist forces”. While 9/11 may have set the pieces into motion, global authorities had already identified al-Qaeda’s threat. Resolution 1267 of the United Nations Security Council [UNSC], enacted on October 15, 1999, labelled the Taliban and al-Qaeda as terrorist forces imposing sanctions on them (Laub & Maizland, 2021).
American intelligence identified Afghanistan as a refuge for al-Qaeda members, but the Taliban and al-Qaeda seemed unwilling to give in so easily. The Taliban were adamant about keeping al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and away from American persecution (Zucchino, 2021). In their pursuit to instigate peace, the U.S., with the aid of the U.K. and a few other nations, would initiate Operation Enduring Freedom. Beginning on October 7, 2001, this invasion would primarily consist of air-strikes (Laub & Maizland, 2021). Later on, this coalition would also strike on land, “The first wave of conventional ground forces arrives twelve days later. Most of the ground combat is between the Taliban and its Afghan opponents” (Laub & Maizland, 2021). With an eccentric army of around 47,000 members, the Taliban and al-Qaeda armies would suffer a swift defeat (Jasso, 2021). The coalition in tandem with the Northern Alliance (, an Afghanistan military alliance,) would take over Taloqan, Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul, and Jalalabad in quick succession (Laub & Maizland, 2021). Forced to exit these strongholds, the Taliban would withdraw into the eastern and southern regions of Afghanistan.
Resolution 1378, passed on November 14, 2001, would entail the UNSC’s central role in providing transitional assistance and peacekeeping (Laub & Maizland, 2021). Soon after, the U.S. would begin to revitalize and reinstitute Afghanistan as a nation. President George Bush said, “By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall” (Laub & Maizland, 2021). While the U.S. would set aside $38 billion for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, the scale of this reinvigoration would “not come close to Marshall Plan-like reconstruction” (Laub & Maizland, 2021). Finally, Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, would “declare an end to major combat” on May 1, 2003 (Laub & Maizland, 2021). America was in war with Iraq and so pivoted thousands of American troops to Iraq in 2003 (Zucchino, 2021). At this point, many would think the original objective in Afghanistan to be achieved, so why did it continue?
Um...Aren't We Done Yet?
There are many different answers to this question, each one varying in acceptance depending on who you ask. One possible justification to this is that the job was not completely finished. Afterall, the Taliban had just retreated and al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was alive after fleeing the country to Pakistan (Laub & Maizland, 2021). In reality, the Taliban “had offered to surrender on modest terms in December 2001, but President George W. Bush rejected the offer and his Defense Department vowed to defeat them” (Johny, 2021). While this justification may be a ploy to prolong the lucrative economic potential of warfare, there is obviously some sense to it. Similarly, some believed the original objectives to be obsolete or useless to begin with, calling for a refocusing on the main goals and the introduction of more specific and actionable ones. The first objectives of the Afghanistan invasion were not specific enough as described by the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and needed attainable and timely goals (Laub & Maizland, 2021).
Another possible reason America lingered in Afghanistan for so long was to ensure the Taliban would not return to power. The argument was, in essence, finishing the job. Despite having caused a full retreat from the Taliban and al-Qaeda radicals, the U.S., as previously mentioned, would continue to reconstruct Afghanistan, putting in place Western institutions and pro-Western authorities. Zucchino (2021) discussed how despite how the improvement in infrastructure provided more people, especially women, more opportunities, there were drawbacks. Despite the large provisions from America, Zucchino writes, “hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction money [was] stolen or misappropriated.” On top of this, many people’s daily needs were often unsupported. America did not need to involve themselves so heavily in Afghanistan’s rebuilding; however, it was based on the “view that a return of the Taliban to power would derail the global war on terror” (Johny, 2021). In line with this, America would continue to shutdown any resurfacing Taliban forces. President Barack Obama, would, as previously mentioned, deploy thousands more troops to Afghanistan in order to combat the increase in foreign fighters at the southern border.
As the years in conflict continued to pile higher, a major goal was accomplished in the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. personnel on May 1, 2011 (Zucchino, 2021). This now resurfaced “the long-simmering debate about continuing the Afghanistan war” (Laub & Maizland, 2021). Despite this, we know that the war would continue for another 9 years, why did they only withdraw now?
No Better Time Than Now
2011 would be the beginning of a slow and treacherous departure of Americans from Afghanistan. President Obama would, in July of that year, begin preparations for the return to America of thirty thousand troops (Laub & Maizland, 2021). Even then, we can see the debate, the push and pull within the country and in Afghanistan. Laub and Maizland (2021) write, “congressional lawmakers increasingly call for a hastened drawdown of U.S. troops, though some analysts argue for a sustained military engagement.” They continue by providing the Afghanistan perspective; with the rise in anti-Pakistan sentiment, Afghan President Hamid Karzai says that military powers should look to Pakistan (and not to Afghanistan) for terrorism. Despite this uncertainty, America set the deadline, at 2014, then at 2016, for a major return of American forces from Afghanistan (Laub & Maizland, 2021; Zucchino, 2021). This may be in response to the slipping control America had in the region. Jasso (2021) writes “By 2016, one-fifth of Afghan territory was either controlled or contested by the Taliban; by 2018, that figure had reached 46%.” Jasso continues, “the reach of the American occupation remained trapped within the limits of the cities and along the main roads while most of Afghanistan escaped its control. The Taliban prevailed by surviving in an endless state of war that has drained the United States since 2001.” They had been slowly losing the little control they had over the nation.
In addition to this, the huge amount of resources America had pumped into the campaign in Afghanistan may seem absurd to some but with justification for others. Over the span of those 20 years, over $2 trillion was spent (Johny, 2021). Beyond monetary resources, human resources were also harmed. Knickmeyer (2021) provides statistics on the Afghanistan war, mainly gathered from Linda Bilmes and Brown University’s Costs of War project between 2003-2011. According to Knickmeyer, 3,846 U.S. contractors, 66,000 Afghan national military and police forces, 51,191 opposition forces, and 47,245 Afghan civilians were killed. Costs slowly stack up, and as time moves on, each administration has a different level of tolerance. This may be another reason why America left Afghanistan.
In President Donald Trump’s administration, America “press[ed] ahead with an open-ended military commitment” in Afghanistan (Laub & Maizland, 2021). President Donald Trump viewed this continuation as a means to avoid leaving a sudden power-grab for terrorists (Laub & Maizland, 2021). He also believed that the original timelines were arbitrary and that the American withdrawal would be closely monitoring daily conditions in Afghanistan (Liptak, 2021). In President Joe Biden’s administration, there is less tolerance for continued warfare. At the time, May 2021 was the set deadline for complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, as negotiated by Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leaders during Donald Trump’s administration (Liptak, 2021). President Joe Biden (2021) would discuss this issue in a speech at the White House: “So we were left with a simple decision: Either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war.”
After You've Gone
Recent developments have brought heavy criticism on America and Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw. During the withdrawal, many people, some citizens and some not, wished to leave the country. Zucchino (2021) writes “As the last evacuation flight departed, it left behind at least 100,000 people, by one estimate, who might be eligible for expedited U.S. visas”. In addition to this, there had been some concerns that a quick withdrawal might lead to consequences. An early return of American troops could allow the Islamic State and the Taliban to reconstruct its stronghold, for terrorists warned the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on November 17, 2020 (Laub & Maizland, 2021). Even then, President Joe Biden (2021) believes it is no longer in the hands of America, stating “The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil wars with the Taliban. That assumption…turned out not to be accurate”. In the end, it is agreeable that the situation did not turn out as smoothly as America had hoped.
In the end, the war in Afghanistan stems from complex topics with details and ideas far too big to cover in one article. The war that has recently finished is something history will remember as America’s and Afghanistan’s fight for control over a nation holding on to refugees and terrorists. It is a critical moment in current history and will prove to be a defining moment for America’s foreign policy as well as warfare in the 21st century. Beyond that, however, it is important to remember that in every action, there are real people being affected. Every action taken by all parties involved end up affecting normal, everyday people be it for better or worse. It is unfortunate that many people end up entangled in a war they did not have any say in, especially when it has been as devastating as this one. We can only hope things get better.
Biden, J. R. (2021, August 31). Remarks by President Biden on the end of the war in Afghanistan. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/08/31/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-end-of-the-war-in-afghanistan/
Jasso, R. (2021, September 9). Anarchy and occupation: The US in the Mexican-American war and in Afghanistan. E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info/2021/09/09/anarchy-and-occupation-the-us-in-the-mexican-american-war-and-afghanistan/
Johny, S. (2021, September 1). What did America achieve in Afghanistan? The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/news-analysis-what-did-america-achieve-in-afghanistan/article36220530.ece
Knickmeyer, E. (2021, August 17). Costs of the Afghanistan war, in lives and dollars. Associated Press. https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-business-afghanistan-43d8f53b35e80ec18c130cd683e1a38f
Laub, Z., & Maizland, L. (2021, August 26). The U.S. war in Afghanistan. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan
Liptak, K. (2021, August 24). Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden: How four presidents created today's Afghanistan mess. CNN [Cable News Network]. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/23/politics/how-four-presidents-created-afghanistan-mess/index.html
Zucchino, D. (2021, September 22). The U.S. war in Afghanistan: How it started, and how it ended. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/afghanistan-war-us.html