It’s been a month since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While the US withdrawal has been chaotic, there’s a bigger story there. The chaos we’ve seen isn’t simply due to overestimating the Afghan government’s staying power in the last few months, or how well the US did or didn’t prepare the Afghan army to fend for itself.
In hindsight it’s unclear what succeeding in Afghanistan would have actually looked like. Would it have become a pluralistic, representative democracy? Probably not, even under the best of circumstances. But could it have become a country where more than 30% of its young girls would be able to attend school? Maybe, but sadly we’ll probably never know.
Why was the US in Afghanistan in the first place?
We’ve all seen the famous pictures of 9/11, when two hijacked jumbo jets flew into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, killing 2,977 people and injuring another 6,000 – many have since died of related illnesses, like cancer. After the two planes hit the World Trade Center, a third hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed over Pennsylvania en route to an unknown target, after the passengers fought the hijackers.
Within days, the FBI traced the attacks back to 26 Al-Qaeda-trained operatives who were acolytes of Osama bin Laden. The FBI’s findings were the immediate pretext for a US-led, 40-nation coalition invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, presided over by then US President, George W. Bush.
About 90% of Americans and a majority of America’s allies supported invading Afghanistan. Even China supported action in Afghanistan, aligning itself early with the global community’s battle against fundamentalist terrorist organisations.
The US demanded the Taliban hand over Bin Laden, who was known to be hiding in the country. When the Taliban refused, the US and its partners invaded in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Before 9/11: Mujahideen, Taliban & Al-Qaeda
To understand today’s situation, we have to go back to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when it tried to install a pro-communist regime. Over the next 10 years, they unsuccessfully fought, and lost to local Afghan “mujahideen” (resistance fighters) who were supported by the US with training and weapons.
These mujahideen weren’t a single force, but dozens of factions with shifting alliances and goals. The only thing they had in common was wanting the Soviets out.
Of these factions, there’s Al-Qaeda, founded in 1988 by the then-unknown Saudi millionaire Osama Bin Laden who was in Afghanistan bankrolling his own group of mujahideen, comprising a mix of foreign nationals from countries like Indonesia and Kenya.
Separately, the group that would later become the Taliban (in the early 1990s) began as a home-grown group of local Pashtun tribesmen from the lawless Afghan-Pakistan border region. While the two groups differed on some points (Al-Qaeda had more international aspirations, while the Taliban had mainly local aspirations), they were essentially allies.
After defeating the Soviets, the different factions descended into civil war which only ended in 1996, when the fundamentalist Taliban seized control of most of the country. They enacted strict laws which severely prohibited many freedoms the country previously had, including allowing women to study and work.
The Taliban let Al-Qaeda operate freely in Afghanistan where they planned 9/11 – which directly led to the US’s invasion in 2001.
The Afghanistan War in 2001
The Taliban were the de facto rulers of Afghanistan since 1996 when the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001, with the stated mission to capture Bin Laden and cripple Al-Qaeda’s base of operations.
The invasion wasn’t initially to topple the Taliban or install a new government, but since the Taliban funded their regime through the sale of 80% of the world’s poppy (opium) cultivation, the American War on Terror conveniently overlapped with the War on Drugs.
The Americans managed to drive the Taliban from major cities like Kabul and Kandahar in 2001, and for the next decade, the US and its allies – including the Afghan military – fought Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. While the victory was initially good news for Afghans, it soon turned into horror, as American and allied forces became more destructive in their fight against the Taliban; they used aerial drones and destroyed whole villages in the process.
Throughout the war with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the US also sent armies to Iraq in 2003 to capture Saddam Hussein, based on slim evidence that he had control of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). With the US army spread in two countries, operatives only managed to hunt down their original target – Bin Laden – in 2011. He was on the lam since 2001 and was eventually tracked down and killed in a raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011.
After Bin Laden’s death, many nations who had initially gone along with the war began to call for a solution to the “forever war” – it was the longest war in US history. The US and its allies then set about building a professional army and police force (numbering 300,000) for Afghanistan, with the US spending a staggering US$133 billion on “nation building.”
However, the Taliban continued to fight a guerilla war in pockets across Afghanistan until the US’s pull-out last month.
Why did the US pull out?
Since 2001, four US presidents have overseen the Afghan war: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. The biggest change came when former President Trump signed the “Doha Agreement” with the Taliban in February, 2020.
Almost everyone outside the Trump Administration agrees it was badly negotiated. In the deal, the US agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, in return for nothing more than a Taliban pledge they wouldn’t attack US/NATO forces (although they could freely attack Afghan government forces), and that they wouldn’t provide a safe-haven for Al-Qaeda.
Perhaps most ironically, it required a commitment that they would respect human rights, specifically the rights of women and girls. This has proven laughably naive – since the Doha Agreement, assassinations of female activists and leaders have risen by 50%.
The Doha Agreement was the beginning of the end for the Afghan government. When the US announced its withdrawal, all other allies began planning theirs. The news sent shockwaves throughout Afghan civil society, forcing 250,000 Afghans to flee their homes since May, 80% of whom were women and children.
This left Afghan forces demoralised, and the Taliban made substantial gains until their eventual takeover in August. In the month since Kabul fell, there’s been widespread reports of everything from the Taliban closing girls schools to public beatings and forced marriages of women to Taliban fighters.
So who’s to blame?
There’s plenty of blame to go around. The entire saga began when Russians (aka Soviets) invaded Afghanistan in 1979, causing Americans to train and arm the original mujahideens in a knee-jerk reaction to stamping out Communism.
When the mujahideen were initially fighting the invading Soviets, they were lauded as heroes. However, once they associated the Soviets with the West in general (including the Americans), they quickly became all kinds of wrong. They painted the Western world as ‘enemies against Islam’ and began planning their international terror campaigns, including 9/11.
Of course, the Americans weren’t helping in clearing that image – in fighting against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, they resorted to horrible things like torturing prisoners at the infamous Guantanamo Bay.
Then there’s the Afghan government. Despite two decades of technical assistance and $133 billion in US aid alone – and billions more from other donors – women’s literacy rate stands at just 29.8%. Infant mortality rates are lower than in Syria, and even Yemen. Even Afghan life expectancy is lower than Yemen’s.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was the 8th most corrupt country in the world; it’s widely understood that the reason so much aid had so little impact is because so little of it actually reached the people.
Then there’s the last two US presidents, but for very different reasons. The Donald Trump administration’s beyond-poorly-done negotiations on the Doha Agreement actually left the current POTUS, Joe Biden, with a lose-lose situation. It’s either exit Afghanistan as per the treaty, or break the treaty and recommence the “forever war.” However, Biden isn’t blameless. The US’s messy exit left the Afghan public hanging metaphorically; hundreds of thousands of US allies and their families are now in peril.
Last but not least, the blame also lies with other countries who’ve had a hand in Afghanistan for their own national interests, including Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, and China, to name a few.