Afghanistan: a walk through time

Sam Kohl ’22

On August 26, 2021, silhouetted against a setting sun, hundreds of desperate Afghans crowded the American checkpoint at Abbey Gate, one of seven entrances into Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Among the frightened interpreters and their families, the women escaping oppression, and the stoic children whose young eyes have long been conditioned to violence, was a man, unassuming and unspecific. Satisfied he was in the thick of the crowd and within blast distance of the American soldiers, he detonated his suicide vest, instantly killing hundreds of Afghan civilians and thirteen American service members. The videos from the scene were horrific: mangled bodies in pools of sewage, anonymous arms and legs strewn about, and cacophonous conversations of gunfire punctuating the moans of those unlucky enough to not instantly be incinerated by the blast. 

The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan can stand as a microcosm of the conflict as a whole, laden from the beginning with intelligence failures, tactical blunders, and half-competent leadership.

The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan can stand as a microcosm of the conflict as a whole, laden from the beginning with intelligence failures, tactical blunders, and half-competent leadership. In trying to understand the situation in Afghanistan, it can be tempting to headline-surf major news outlets in search of a one-size-fits-all answer to a complicated twenty years of conflict. I propose the opposite: a recent (and admittedly non-exhaustive) history of America’s involvement in Afghanistan, beginning first with the Soviet invasion in 1979, then moving to the formation of the Taliban during the Afghan civil war of the mid-1990s, and, finally, the involvement of the United States after 9/11, first during Operation Enduring Freedom and then Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

The history of Afghanistan from the 1960s onward has, more than anything else, been a history of coups and conflicts. But our story, the American story, begins predominantly on the 27th of December, 1979, when the Soviet Union launched “Operation Storm-333,” assassinating the head of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in an effort to regain its geopolitical footing in the nation. What followed was nearly a decade of war, which saw the fighting of massive Soviet Armies and small groups of Afghan guerillas known as “mujahideen,” backed primarily by the United States, China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Out of this conflict came an extremely widespread, often smugly cited, yet ahistorical myth: the Taliban was created by the United States. First and foremost, the mujahideen reflected the country that they fought for: that’s to say they possessed diverse ideologies. In fact, during the height of the war, there were over seven different mujahideen groups, each with their own sets of values and political leanings. Therefore, it would be nonsense to suggest that, because the U.S. supported mujahideen groups and some mujahideen joined the Taliban, the U.S. created the Taliban. Secondly, arguably the most powerful mujahideen commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, as well as other top mujahideen commanders, fought against the Taliban during the civil war in the 1990s. Finally, the government that most of the mujahideen groups agreed to in the Peshawar Accords—a government predominantly composed of former mujahideen fighters, commanders, and political leaders—was overthrown by the Taliban in 1996. 

So if the Taliban didn’t emerge from the mujahideen, who are they and how did they come to be? Well, after the mujahideen fended off the Soviets in 1989, violence and instability persisted in the region, largely due to the aforementioned fact that not only were the mujahideen a diverse group but the country of Afghanistan was as well. So when a group of militant fundamentalist students in Kandahar promised to bring peace to a country being torn apart by internal strife, they grew popular. Led by Mohammed Omar, the Taliban (Pashto for “student” or “seeker”) quickly gained membership and began conquering territories across Afghanistan, eventually taking the capital Kabul in late September 1996, ending the civil war in Afghanistan and establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Around the same time, Saudi militant Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistan from Sudan, forming a quick relationship with Mohammed Omar, the hitherto de-facto leader of Afghanistan. This relationship proved extremely important when, on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda conducted a series of terrorist attacks on the United States. Galvanized by these atrocities, the U.S. demanded the extradition of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan. The Taliban refused, prompting President George W. Bush to initiate Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).

During the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. was initially effective in defeating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In fact, by December 2001, Kabul had been retaken, and Al-Qaeda and much of the Taliban were driven into Pakistan. The U.S. then ran into a problem—they were ramping up the war in Iraq (fast-forwarding a few years) and Afghanistan seemed more or less a done deal. 

A Marine walks with children during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 24, 2021- Sgt. Samuel Ruiz via Wikimedia commons

What was next for Afghanistan? Well, it turned out not to be a done deal, and seemingly nobody knew what was next for the country. Even as the Taliban began a second wave of attacks in 2007, commander of forces in Afghanistan General Dan McNeill couldn’t articulate a definitive strategy, even as the U.S. implemented a troop surge of over 50,000: “I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could. Nobody would give me a good definition of what it meant… There was no NATO campaign plan—a lot of verbiage and talk, but no plan,” McNeill added. “So for better or for worse, a lot of what we did, we did with some forethought, but most of it was reacting to conditions on the ground… We were opportunists.” 

Confusion surrounding a definition of victory pervaded the upper echelons of U.S. political and military leadership. For some, like President Obama, victory was “disrupting, defeating, and dismantling Al-Qaeda.” But when commander of U.S. and NATO forces General Stanley McChrystal laid out his 2009 strategic review of the situation in Afghanistan, it didn’t even mention Al-Qaeda. Additionally, President Obama set an unrealistic time frame for success during his 2009 surge, giving novel counterinsurgency strategies only fourteen months to work. All this is to say that, for much of the war, the U.S. lacked a central strategy and proper messaging.

There were many stages in the war in which different decisions could have led to a possibly quicker outcome. The first glaringly obvious one was the decision not to include the Taliban in the governmental negotiations in 2003-2004. The Taliban was not at all involved in the 9/11 attacks, only harboring those who were. While it’s easy to see only the Taliban as radical terrorists, the U.S. should have realized that the Taliban movement was far too woven into Afghan society to suddenly disappear overnight. In fact, an unnamed U.N. official said, “At that moment [during the governmental negotiations of 2003/2004], most Hizb-i-Islami or Taliban commanders were interested in joining the government.” 

Another U.S. failure was not necessarily the concept of nation-building, but the way that it was executed.

Had the U.S. jumped at this opportunity to build a new Afghan government that included the Taliban as well as others, the region could have seen stability. 

Another U.S. failure was not necessarily the concept of nation-building, but the way that it was executed. The U.S. attempted to westernize a country that had not seen major change in the last thousand years, and they did so by overfunding dubious contractors and corrupt Afghan officials. An anecdotal example of this comes from Army Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, who served in the White House from 2007 to 2013. He recalls the story of attending the opening of a new police station in Afghanistan. The station was constructed using intricate architectural methods, glass, and an atrium. But when the local police chief tried to enter the building, “[he] couldn’t even open the door,” Lute continues, “He had never seen a doorknob like this. To me, this encapsulates the whole experience in Afghanistan.” 

Lute also talks about the proverbial money pit that was large infrastructure projects. For example, he notes how the U.S. poured money into new dams and highways, knowing that Afghanistan, one of the poorest and least educated countries in the world, had absolutely no way of maintaining any of them.

In 2015, after over a decade of war in Afghanistan, President Obama ended Operation Enduring Freedom and transitioned into Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, concluding major combat operations in the country and shifting America’s goals from “nation-building” to arming and training the Afghan National Security Forces and conducting small-scale counterterrorism operations. This mission (also called “Operation Resolute Support” by NATO), meant a drawdown of troops and a relocation of most remaining forces to a central base at Bagram Airfield, just north of Kabul.

Between 2015 and 2019, while Taliban influence in Afghanistan grew, support for American involvement fell. Seeing this, then-President Trump entered into negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government, eventually signing the Doha Accords and setting a timeline for the end of America’s longest war. But as I outlined in a March 2021 article, this deal reeked of what could be characterized either as short-sightedness or sheer indifference to the realities on the ground. It relied far too heavily on the word of the Taliban, a group that has no real long-term interest in peace in the region, and made concessions without any Taliban reciprocation (e.g., releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners). “One doesn’t need a degree in international relations,” as I so perspicaciously put in my article, “to understand that a full withdrawal of troops from the region would be a geopolitical disaster.”

Finally, we arrive at the present: in July, the Biden administration committed the United States to a full withdrawal by August 3—a promise he kept. Yet, almost nothing about the withdrawal of American troops went smoothly, and the President has faced bipartisan backlash for his handling of the situation. But many of the critiques levied at him are misplaced, and require confronting some of the fundamental truths of a withdrawal. 

First of all, Biden did not have the choice to keep the status quo; the situation he inherited was not sustainable. Afghan National Army deaths had been steadily increasing for years, while simultaneously government-controlled territory had been shrinking. Biden had two real choices: surge or leave. He chose to leave.

Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, boards a C-17 cargo plane at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan – Jack Holt, U.S. Central Commvia Wikimedia Commons

But how he chose to do it could only be described as disorganized and, ultimately, an embarrassment to a country that prides itself on its robust military capabilities and strength. 

The Biden administration formally announced on May 1, 2021 that all U.S. and NATO troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, essentially committing to the Trump-era deal, one Biden would later bemoan as being restrictive, asserting that he had no choice but to go through with the deal. In reality, the Trump-era deal stipulated that the U.S. could pull out if peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government failed. They did. Biden chose to remain in the deal and is therefore responsible for its consequences.

The months following this May 1 announcement brought headline after headline documenting new Taliban successes. And so came opinion piece after opinion piece blaming the Afghan National Army, citing their “lack of a will to fight” as the reason for their failures to defend their homeland. To say such a thing is not only false but also supremely offensive towards a group that has lost upwards of 70,000 troops and has been anything but recalcitrant to the presence of the U.S., routinely risking their lives to further American interests.

The real problems with the Afghan National Army lay elsewhere. For one, as put by Admiral James Stavridis (ret.), “America and the ISAF tried desperately to use the U.S. Army as the model [on which to build the Afghan National Army], and it was the wrong approach.” What does he mean? Well, when the U.S. Army goes to war, it doesn’t go alone. It goes with the strongest and most sophisticated Air Force on the planet providing cover from the air. It goes with billions, even trillions of dollars ready to spend on the war effort. It goes with advanced satellite and communication technology. We tried to build a smaller American army. But when the people who knew how to operate these advanced communications devices, the people who could helicopter a gunshot victim to a hospital in less than sixty minutes, the people who could level a compound with a laser-guided munition from tens of thousands of feet left the country, the Afghan National Army floundered. And who can blame them? It’s common sense that one will fight better knowing they are backed up by the strongest military in the world.  

Afghanistan silhouette – USGS via Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, the Afghan military was riddled with corruption at nearly every level. This meant that often commanders would lavish in the black-market profits of American-supplied weapons and ammunition while their troops would go into battle underfed and poorly armed. This brings me to my final point on the Afghan Army: it’s not that they had no will to fight for their country—it’s that they had no will to fight for the corrupt and largely illegitimate government whose patch they wore on their shoulders.

Afghanistan is a tribal nation, built on the ideals of family and community. The U.S. needed to recognize this and focus its efforts more on building local militia-style forces rather than a large national army. Equip them with simple weapons and ammunition and let them defend what really matters to them—their family, not some propped-up rentier state destined for failure.

Twenty years of mismanagement on the part of the U.S. led to the four months we saw over the summer. Biden had no choice in the matter—the Taliban was always going to take over the country. Knowing this (intelligence suggested that the Taliban would take over, though not as fast as they actually did), Biden should have focused less on the Afghan government in negotiations. This presents an interesting dichotomy, however: if Biden negotiated solely with the Taliban, he would be acknowledging that the Afghan government—the one the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on building—isn’t legitimate. But if he focused his negotiations on the Afghan government, he would be bluffing his hand (exaggerating the strength of the government on the ground), except everybody else at the table (including the Taliban) would know that it was a bluff. It was a precarious situation, but Biden should have taken the unpopular step of shifting negotiations away from compromises to keep the U.S.-backed Ghani government in power, and accepted the reality that the Taliban were always going to take back control of the country.

Another aspect of the withdrawal, and the greater war, that was royally blundered was the handling of SIVs (special immigrant visas) and the evacuation of our Afghan enablers in general. Biden should have begun airlifting out civilians long before the troops were fully pulled out, easing the years-long backlog of Afghans trying to escape the Taliban and enter the United States. While the Biden administration may pat themselves on the back for the “largest airlift in U.S. military history,” the reality of the situation, according to State Department officials, is that the majority of those who worked for the U.S. and applied for these visas were left behind in Afghanistan, likely to face torture, or worse. That’s to say nothing about the nearly 200 or more Americans still stranded on the ground in Afghanistan.

Finally, there’s the question of Bagram Airbase, the hub of US operations in the country for nearly two decades. Why was it abandoned? Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) has a single runway, is small compared to Bagram, and is less defensible. Why not use HKIA as a staging area to ferry Afghans to Bagram, where, instead of C-17 cargo planes, massive Boeing 747 jumbo jets, configured to carry as many passengers as possible, could takeoff on the two runways? I’m no logistics expert, but Bagram certainly could have provided more utility as a functioning airfield than as a patch of dirt.

When Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, stepped onto a waiting C-17 cargo plane in the early hours of August 21, 2021, he turned the page on the longest war in American history.

When Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, stepped onto a waiting C-17 cargo plane in the early hours of August 21, 2021, he turned the page on the longest war in American history. Behind him, among the undulating desert contours and jagged mountain peaks, lay the remnants of an empire. America, the pinnacle of military infallibility, would, once again, leave the battlefield with shoulders slouched and heads hanging low. Over twenty years, the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives, and for what? I’ve had a hard time grappling with this question—what was the point of it all? No, we didn’t create a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. No, we didn’t permanently extinguish Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the region. 

But if our efforts gave twenty years of freedom to Afghan citizens from brutal Taliban rule, if they gave Afghan girls the opportunity to get an education without worrying for their lives, if they gave even a semblance of hope and prosperity to a country that’s been deprived of them for centuries, that’s got to be worth something, right?