Twenty years. Twenty grueling years the United States occupied the Afghan countryside with a security presence unlike any operation previously performed by our military. October 15th, 1999 would be the catalytic day in Afghan history when the United Nations would adopt Resolution 1267. This resolution effectively recognized Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a global threat to peace and sovereignty. The resolution would sanction the group’s ability for funding, travel, and arms shipments. Regardless, the post-Soviet civil war provided a sanctuary for the growth of Al-Qaeda and their operations. On September 9th, 2001 Ahmad Shah Massoud, commander of the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition, was assassinated by Al-Qaeda. This would open the doors even wider for the extremists, by affectively eliminating the lone, in-country, resistance towards their unforgiving crusade. With Massoud gone, this ensures protection for Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden.
We know today, the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in DC, and in Shanksville PA on September 11th, 2001, were carried out by Al-Qaeda operatives, killing over three thousand Americans. However, not one of the nineteen hijackers are of Afghan decent. Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian, led the group, and fifteen of the hijackers originated from Saudi Arabia. Then President George W. Bush would convey to the world that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were to “deliver to the United States authorities all the leaders of al-Qaeda who hide in your land or share in their fate.” (Bush 01) Bush’s remarks would culminate on September 18th, 2001, when he would sign into law a joint resolution allowing the use of force against those who were responsible for the attacks on 9/11. This resolution however would also bring upon measures cited by the Bush administration as the rational for combating terrorism via invading Afghanistan, to eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without a court order, and the development of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
October 7th, 2001, the United States alongside British forces conduct operation “Enduring Freedom.” U.S. bombers bombard key locations in Afghanistan with artillery where they believed Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were located. Twelve day later the first boots on the ground arrive. The majority of the ground fighting at this time is between the Taliban and anti-Al-Qaeda militia. Through the entirety of the months of October and November, allied forces would back Al-Qaeda and the Taliban into retreat. A strategic loss at Mazar-e-Sharif forces the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives to lose key strong hold positions in the region. By the 14th of November The United Nations passes resolution 1378, creating a central role for the UN to establish a traditional administration inviting member states to send forces in the name of peace keeping and the promotion of stability. The attempts for peace would be thwarted come that December.
December of 2001 intelligence forces pin pointed Bin Laden’s location to the Tora Bora cave complex southeast of Kabul. For the first two weeks of this month, Afghan militias would engage the Al-Qaeda operatives resulting in several hundred dead, and the eventual escape of Bin Laden. The U.S. would not be a part of this engagement leaving many to ponder why we did not take a hard line approach to capturing Bin Laden when we had the chance. That same month, The United Nations would invite influential Afghan factions lead predominantly by the Northern Alliance, the former ruling body of the region, to Bonn Germany where they would endorse and sign the Bonn Agreement which was backed by the UN Security Council through Resolution 1383. This agreement would be backed by substantial Iranian diplomacy due to Iran’s support of the Northern Alliance. In turn this would spawn the UN’s peacekeeping force to maintain security in Kabul. This would be followed up by resolution 1386, establishing the International Assistance Force (ISAF). Thus, the security state begins.
Jumping ahead to April of 2002, President Bush calls for the “reconstruction of Afghanistan”. “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,” (Bush 02) This implying that the United States would go about enacting reform in the Afghan region by utilizing the post-world war two plan that revived Western Europe. Congress would pass a $38 billion budget in humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance until 2009. Unfortunately, the Middle East is not Western Europe.
With the Taliban crumbling and Al-Qaeda in retreat, the UN and the United States begin establishing an interim administration with a transitional government to the Afghan region. Hamid Karzai would be selected as chairman of the interim administration and would begin establishing a reconstruction model to the region. The United States military would construct a frame work for coordination and redevelopment for the Afghans. With help from the UN and civilian organizations, Karzai and his allies would expand the authority of the Kabul government. This would be done by implementing “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” or PRT’s. These PRT’s would then be handed over to NATO states for control. Disorganized with a lack of central control criticism mounts in the surrounding communities of Kabul. Uncertainty is a dark cloud over the region, and what that uncertainty brought was paranoia and distrust amongst both sides of the conflict.
In May of 2003 Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense at the time, declared an end to major combat in Afghanistan, conveniently coinciding with President Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished” ending a decade of conflict in Iraq. Per Rumsfeld; “We have concluded that we are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction and activities.” (Rumsfeld 03) How wrong he was.
While the optimism was abundant, Afghans were still not seeing the type of reformation they were expecting. In August of 2003 NATO would assume control of the ISAF in Afghanistan, making it their operational commitment outside of Europe’s boarders. NATO would expand the then five thousand troops on the ground to nearly sixty-five thousand from 41 other countries. Fast forward to 2006, the ISAF takes command of the international military forces in eastern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition and becomes entrenched in intense combat operations in the south.
2004 brings arguably the most optimism for the country of Afghanistan. In January a constitution is enacted by 502 Afghan delegates. This created a presidential system with a backbone, intending to unite various ethnic groups in the country. This is Afghanistan’s first positive inclination of progress towards a Democratic society. In October of 04, Afghanistan elects a new President. Karzai becomes Afghanistan’s first democratically elected head. Despite threats of violence, the kidnapping of 3 UN election workers, and accusations of fraud, this was the first time Afghans had voted in a democratic election since 1969. The celebrations however would soon be cut short.
At the end of the month of October, Osama Bin Laden would surface once again. Via video tape, Bin Laden would denounce the U.S. coalition and taunt then reelected President Bush for being the mind behind the 9/11 attacks. “We want to restore freedom to our nation, just as you lay waste to our nation.” (Bin Laden 04) It was clear the United States and allied forces had their work cut out for them. This would spark a relentless military endeavor to capture and kill Bin Laden. This endeavor would begin in May of 2005, when Bush and Karzai issue a joint statement that pronounced their countries as strategic military partners. The U.S. would gain access to Afghan military facilities to implement prosecution against the international war on terror. The Afghans hoped to strengthen the ties between them and the U.S. More importantly, this declaration was in turn to help prepare Afghan security forces for conflict. This would force personal responsibility in undertaking the rebuild of their own country. For a brief moment in time, Afghanistan was on its way to becoming an independent democracy. Over six million people took part in the election of Wolesi Jirga (Council of the People) and the Meshrano (Council of Elders). Nearly half of the ballets cast were from women, which was political progress that was unheard of in the region at the time. Sixty-eight out of 249 seats are set aside for female members of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament and 23 out of 102 are reserved in the upper house. Tides had seemingly shifted in Afghanistan in 2005.
July of 2006 brought a resurgence of extremists unlike anything the Afghans had seen before. Suicide attacks quintuple from 27 in 2005 to 140 in 2006. IED attacks and remote detonations doubled. The public, as well as some senior U.S. officials begin to blame a faltering government in Afghanistan, despite such success in the election season. Come November of that same year, a NATO summit was held to reconsider commitments to Afghanistan. Then NATO Secretary-General Scheffer calls for a deadline in 2008 for the Afghan forces to take full control of security in the region with help from NATO and civilian aid workers.
In May of 2007 Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban military commander is killed in a joint operation by Afghan, U.S., and NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. This man was responsible for the majority of suicide attacks in the country at that time, once telling the BBC he had “hundreds of suicide bombers awaiting his command.” This came as a huge boost of moral for counterinsurgency specialists. Unfortunately, collateral deaths began to mount. Civilian casualties are bound to happen with intense conflict. In August of 2008 UN investigators find that a U.S. gunship had killed dozens of Afghan civilians in the Shindand District of the western Herat Province. The condemnation was swift and direct from President Hamid Karzai. This bolsters the Taliban proving that the coalition forces are not able to protect the population. A separate incident within the same week claimed that in the Farah Province as many as 140 civilians were killed also by errant U.S. artillery fire. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal would order an overhaul of all U.S. air strike procedures, ironically saying “We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories, but suffering strategic defeats, by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.” (McChrystal 09)
This remark by McChrystal would be upended by President Obama in 2009 when he recommits to Afghanistan and its fight for democracy. As of January of that year, the United States had thirty-seven thousand troops in Afghanistan. Obamas recommitment would send another seventeen thousand to aid the fight in countering a resurgent Taliban who now are recruiting forgiven fighters over the Afghan-Pakistan border. This time however then Secretary of Defense Rob Gates explains that the mission now is a lot less broad then originally conceived. This time, the mission calls for limited goals to be met. This includes preventing and limiting terrorist safe havens in the Afghan province. “The goal; to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” (Obama 09)
Later that year Obama commits another thirty-thousand troops to aid the already sixty-eight thousand in theater already. This was to ensure adequate training and protection for those Afghan forces we sot to empower. Obama also, for the first time in the now eight-year conflict, announces a draw down date of July 2011. How it will be executed remained to be explained. November of 2010 saw a summit in Lisbon with NATO members signing a declaration unanimously agreeing to hand over power to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. The process was set to being in July of 2011 with local security forces taking control of relatively stable provinces in the country. Still however, many in Afghanistan and in the West, including members of Afghanistan’s parliament, are concerned about the ability of national forces to take over from international troops.
On May 1st 2011, Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan. The man responsible for the deaths of over three thousand Americans has been removed from the battle field, seemingly signaling an end to the U.S. fight against terror. We got our guy. We’ve won. We were so, so very wrong. After the killing of Bin Laden, Afghan president Karzai reiterated rhetoric that the fight against terror “is not in Afghan villages and houses, but across the border in Pakistan.” (Karzai 11) Anti-Pakistan rhetoric grew throughout Afghanistan due to Pakistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Obama would begin troop withdraw in the summer of 2012 after polls show a record number of Americans against our occupation on Afghan soil. Obama then in June of 2011 confirms the United States are in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban with reconciliation in mind. The UN Security Council would then go on to split sanctions between members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, making it much easier to approve or deny individuals and entities. October 7th, 2011 marked 10 years of U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, and still questions remained of the Afghan forces and their capacity to secure the country. After ten years, “1,800 U.S. troop casualties and $444 billion in spending. The costs have eroded U.S. public support, with a global economic downturn, a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, and a $1.3 trillion annual budget deficit.” (CFR.org)
Come March of 2012, the Taliban cancel peace talks with the U.S. and UN. Tensions once again flare after the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the government’s chief negotiator, which Afghan officials blame on the Pakistan-based Haqqani network. The Taliban had also blamed the U.S. of stalling on promises to take crucial steps towards a prisoner swap. After the Taliban back from peace talks, “U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announces the Pentagon’s plan to conclude combat missions by as early as mid-2013 and shift to a primarily security assistance role in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, several incidents serve as blows to the international mission, including an accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. troops and allegations that a U.S. soldier murdered at least sixteen Afghan villagers.” (CFR.org) Karzai would demand all foreign troops withdraw from village outposts, thus speeding up the transition from NATO to Afghan control. In June of 2013 NATO would hand over the remaining ninety-five districts to the Afghan forces. Now the mission moves to military training and special operations training for those Afghans now serving on the front line. Doha, Qatar becomes the neutral site of communication between U.S. officials, Karzai, and Taliban representatives. Negotiations conclude with an expiration on mandates come December of 2014. It is here the United States and Karzai agree to a bilateral security agreement for the U.S. to maintain its military presence.
2014 brought glimpses of hope and progress for the conflict in Afghanistan to come to an end. In May of that year President Obama formally announces U.S. withdraw from the region, in September newly elected President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah, who arranged numerus protests campaigns against Ghani challenging the voting results, came together in diplomacy after intermediate talks with then Secretary of State John Kerry. While the agreement was in good faith, power struggles began to develop within the Afghan governments priorities. Specifically the allocation of security posts throughout the region, for the Taliban had been gaining back territory once lost in the countryside. Meanwhile, former President Karzai begins his outspoken campaign against civilian casualties caused by U.S. negligence in its combat efforts. Karzai was now viewed by the U.S. and allied forces as stirring public corruption, but he wasn’t wrong.
Three years pass and now the United States, represented by President Donald Trump, express their distaste of the “prolonged war” in Afghanistan. With this in mind the Trump administration chose a hard line approach to dealing with radical extremists in the Afghan provinces. April of 2017, the U.S. would drop a non-nuclear “mother of all bombs” on self-affiliated Islamic State militants in the caves of Nangarhar. This operation ignites an already emerging Islamic state effort by surrounding militias. President Trump would deploy several thousand more troops to the already nine thousand currently deployed. At this this point in time the Taliban are more prevalent than ever. They control more than a third of the country. Suicide bombings in major cities like Kabul have become a regular occurrence. Violence is once again the inevitable.
August of that year, President Trump outlines his expectations for the Afghan conflict in Arlington, VA. In front of American troops Trump explains “original instinct was to pull out” (Trump 17) instead Trump takes his no nonsense approach towards the battle by imposing a broad military commitment to prevent an emerging “vacuum for terrorists.” (Trump 17). The fall out of Afghanistan will now lie on the conditions on the ground. India is brought into the fray to try and establish a role in the rebuild of Afghanistan, all the while Pakistan is chastised on the world stage for harboring insurgents. Trump would also loosen restrictions on the militaries combat tactics, even though the UN had published a rise in civilian casualties caused by coalition airstrikes. Peace now seems a far reach for the parties involved.
In 2018 the Taliban would launch devastating assaults in the city of Kabul killing over 115 people. The attacks escalate due to the deployment of U.S. troops throughout rural Afghan territories. 2019 brought attempted peace talks between the Taliban and the United States. Trump would negotiate the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners for the release of 1,000 allied captives. Talks would be abruptly ended after an American solider is killed in a Taliban attack. While the Taliban was still committed to negotiations, they would warn of continued violence due to the cancelation of the peace talks. Come 2020, the United States now has a newly elected leader in Joe Biden, who walks back the hardline Trump area Middle East policy by have U.S. representative envoy Khalilzad sign a preliminary peace deal with the Taliban. This would begin the stages of a massive drawback of U.S. forces in the country. The Taliban appear to agree that Afghanistan will not be used for terrorism and the Taliban must meet Afghan President Ghani’s conditions before they enter the talks. However, the deal does not call for cease-fire. Days after the signing of the treaty, Taliban fighters would attack multiple Afghan security forces throughout the Southern region. The U.S. military would respond with an airstrike in the province of Helmand.
September 12th, 2020, Taliban reps and the Afghan government alongside civil society would meet face to face for the first time in twenty years. Negotiations that were stalled due to former President Trump’s prisoner swap in the last U.S. – Taliban deal. President Biden would up hold this previous commitment, bringing enthusiasm towards peace. The Taliban would go on to reiterate and establish framework for the country of Afghanistan to be governed through Islamic law. In November of this year the United States would again, formally announce withdraw of troops from the country. President Biden would set an initial exit date by the ominous twenty year anniversary of 9/11, September 11th, 2021. By now we know that was not the case.
As I write this now the date is August 31st, 2021. The United States has completely pulled out of Afghanistan, having executed one of the most botched displays of American military resources since the Bay of Pigs. On August 15th the Taliban took control of Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. Former president Ghani escaped with 169 million U.S. dollars in cash. The Taliban now control the palace and all its resources. The Afghan security forces we trained for these moments of crisis, negotiated surrenders to avoid fighting with the Taliban. Afghan officials created a council to commence a peaceful transition of power over to the Taliban. The world now has its first terrorist nation state, now recognized as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. During the evacuation process, thirteen U.S. soldiers were killed in an attack outside the Kabul airport check point where thousands of Americans and refugees surged to catch a flight out of the country. United States ambassadors are airlifted from the roof of the embassy as if were back in Saigon. As of Yesterday, August 30th, 2021, the final flight out of Afghanistan departed in mid-afternoon, leaving behind hundreds of Americans still trying to find a way out. Not only did the U.S. leave behind hundreds of theoretical hostages, the left the Taliban billions of dollars’ worth of tactical military equipment paid for by the United States tax payer.
The Taliban, after twenty years of conflict with the West, came out in the end stronger and more powerful than ever. As of today Islamic law is being reinstituted to society in Afghanistan. Public executions have once again begun, women have been suppressed to their homes, Christians are being murdered, and there is not a thing the United States can do about it now. Bagram air base, our most strategically advantageous position in the country has been abandoned, we have no intelligence on the ground deterring developmental terrorism, and the Taliban are set to cut off internet access to the country, leaving the rest of the world in the dark as to what may continue to develop in the coming months. It has become an American catastrophe.
One thing everyone should understand about our twenty years in Afghanistan is that this conflict was never a war. It was never declared a war. Congress never acknowledged it as such. This was a militarized security occupation that lead to events like 9/11 never happening again. We were never there to spread democracy. That’s a waste of our time. We were there for three reasons and three reasons only. Retribution, redemption, and resources. Did we get enough of all three? Did we get our eye for an eye? Our redeeming peace? Enough geological resources? You and I both know it was all a lie. Every last bit of it. We’ll be back. I know we will. The West’s salvation lies in conflict. The abundance of opportunity that lies in the country side of Afghanistan is too great to deny. Greed and narcissism will eventually lead the West back to the Afghan theater, and the Taliban will be waiting, stronger and more emboldened than ever. The war has yet to begin.