World Affairs

Afghanistan: Cradle of Civilization, The Graveyard of Empires

Background

Although the modern-day nation of Afghanistan was established in 1880 by the British Empire, Afghanistan’s history dates back to the year 3000 BCE.  The seat of several empires throughout history has made Afghanistan a battle ground for centuries, hosting notable powers including Alexander the Great, Napoleon, The Soviet Union and the United States.  It is believed to be one of the earliest recorded farming communities in the world and one of the cradles of ancient civilization.  For more than 1000 years, Afghanistan was strategically placed along the Silk Road, connecting the East to the West and served as gateway to India for centuries.

The British Empire created the modern nation state of Afghanistan as part of what became known in history as, “The Great Game.”  Following the British victory in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the British sought Afghanistan to serve as a buffer between them and their rivals, The Russian Empire.  From the turn of the 20th century, two truths stayed consistent throughout Afghan history.  First, the internal Afghan struggle to balance their hardline Islamic identity with progressive modernization and second, foreign powers inserting themselves into Afghanistan for political gain.  Due to its historically strategic location and its entrenched tribal identity, Afghanistan has lured countless world powers into its borders.  Each of those foreign powers have made assumptions about Afghanistan overestimating their abilities and each have been met with eventual defeat, earning the land the infamous nickname, “Graveyard of Empires.”

Origins of the Taliban

In 1979, The Soviet Union saw its opportunity to put its thumb on the political scale in Afghanistan.  Aiming to bolster the Afghan Socialist Palcham Party, the Soviet’s invaded Afghanistan with an army of approximately 100,000 soldiers and assisted in executing a violent coup d’etat.  The United States of America wasted no time in countering Soviet aggression, investing billions of dollars to fund and arm rebel groups fighting the Soviets.  These groups came to be known as the mujahadeen (“Defenders of the Faith” in Arabic).  During their war with the Soviet Union, these groups were largely decentralized and consisted of fighters from around the world including Afghanistan.  The mujahadeen in many cases crossed ethnic and ideological lines but shared the common bond of Islam and being anti-communist.  They came to be known by the Soviets as, “Ghosts” or “Spirits,” due to their elusiveness in combat.

The Soviets would wage a bloody campaign for a decade in Afghanistan leaving an estimated 500,000 to 2 million Afghans dead.  In addition, the Soviets committed atrocities against Afghan civilians including, abduction, rape and genocide traumatizing the nation for years to come.  Due to increasing international pressure, growing internal dissent particularly among non-Russian peoples being drafted into the Soviet military, and the increase in the effectiveness of the US backed mujahadeen; the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989.  Although seen as victory by the US in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Soviet withdrawal created a power vacuum that plunged Afghanistan into a civil war.  This power vacuum gave rise to a new player in Afghan politics, a group consisting mainly of young students who were once part of the US backed mujahadeen.  Men who were battle hardened through a decade of fighting the Soviets and who wanted to make Afghanistan an Islamic emirate ruled by sharia law.  They called themselves, the Taliban.

Afghan Civil War

Two separate civil wars spanned from 1989-1992 and 1992-1996; a brief intermission of a mujahadeen led government was short lived as it crumbled within three months of its inception.  Throughout the civil war, the Taliban continued to build in numbers culminating in their assault on the Capital, Kabul in 1995.  Although initially defeated by The Northern Alliance (a rival group of mujahadeen fighters), the Taliban were able to quickly regroup due to military support from Pakistan and financial support from Saudi Arabia.  The Taliban then seized Kabul in September of 1996 in an especially brutal assault which in many cases targeted their own civilian population.  They quickly went to work establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and in doing so, established a repressive regime based on Islam’s fundamentalist sharia law.

Under Taliban rule in the 90’s women’s rights were especially hampered, essentially making women second class citizens.  It was illegal for women to be out of the home without a male relative and women were not allowed to go to school or work in most vocations.  In consolidating their control over the country, the Taliban committed at least 15 massacres against the Afghan population according to the UN.  The Taliban primarily targeted other tribes and ethnic groups who disagreed with their fundamentalist view of Islam, especially Shia Muslims.  Saudi Arabia and Pakistan continued to provide direct assistance to the Taliban during this time.  According to a declassified US intelligence report, Pakistan’s military as well as its intelligence services (ISI) played an active role on the ground in training and fighting with the Taliban.  In addition, Al-Qaeda (AQ), under the leadership of Osama Bin-Laden took the opportunity to create a base of operations in Taliban controlled Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas.  In exchange for harboring Bin Laden and his followers, the Taliban were provided a steady stream of foreign fighters to solidify their Islamic emirate.  These foreign-born fighters would make up the majority of the forces fighting with the Taliban.  This political alliance became mutually beneficial, as Bin Laden was looking for haven and a training ground following the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Omar sought to bolster their numbers and secure funding from a rich benefactor, Saudi Arabia.    Some in the international community accused Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan as being complicit, or in some cases directly involved in the massacres and other atrocities committed by the Taliban between 1996-2001.

The Northern Alliance

Throughout the 1990’s a group of fighters led by Ahmad Shah Massoud banded together against the Taliban and called themselves The Northern Alliance.  The Northern Alliance stood counter to the Taliban’s mission, proclaiming to the world that the Taliban were perverting the religion of Islam and that the future of Afghanistan lay with all its people.  Massoud’s fighters and supporters came from various ethnic groups in Afghanistan and Massoud himself was from an ethnic Tajik Sunni Muslim background.  Throughout the 90’s Massoud held different positions in the Afghan government and was consistently a voice vying for peace and cooperation for the future of Afghanistan.  Post 1996, Massoud continued to resist the Taliban.  He and his fighters held autonomy over a small portion of the country, Massoud championed that within the territory under his protection all Afghans would be able to live in peace.  The international community later verified that no instances of human rights violations occurred in any of Massoud’s territory, despite the reality in the rest of the country under Taliban control.  In early 2001, Massoud appealed to the European parliament in Belgium to help Afghanistan fight against the Taliban and to assist Afghanistan with humanitarian aid.   Massoud also appealed to the United States, warning them of Osama Bin Laden and his intentions for the west as well as how instrumental the support from the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI) was for the Taliban.  On September 9 2001, Massoud was assassinated by a suicide bombing orchestrated jointly by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the ISI.

9/11

September 11th, 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives under orders from Osama Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad killed and wounded more than 3,500 people in coordinated attacks in the Northeastern United States.  The United States gave Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, a chance to renounce Osama Bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks; Mullah Omar promptly refuses.  On October 7 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and officially invades Afghanistan.  OEF would launch the United States and its allies into a conflict that would last two decades, making it the longest war the United States has fought in its history.  The war would span four US presidencies and cost the United States and its allies billions of dollars and thousands of lives.  For many Americans who didn’t know its history before, Afghanistan was living up to its infamous nickname, “The Graveyard of Empires.”

Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the stated goals of OEF were to root out terrorist safe havens that had been established in Afghanistan and allowed to flourish by the Taliban.  In addition, another strategic goal of OEF was to kill or capture the Al-Qaeda leadership operating out of Afghanistan, hold them responsible for the 9/11 attacks and to bring the cessation of all terrorism activities operating within the country.

To accomplish these goals, US Special Forces Units who were part of the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) linked up with the Taliban’s natural enemy, The Northern Alliance.  Through a ferocious offensive, coalition forces drove the Taliban out of Kabul by November 13, 2001, and from the Afghanistan on the whole by December 2001.  Many of the remaining Taliban fled to neighboring Pakistan, with ambitions to mount a guerrilla campaign against the coalition that would extend for the next two decades.

Building a Nation and Pakistan’s Involvement

By the beginning of 2002 until 2021, the United States engaged in nation building with the Afghan people while simultaneously waging a military campaign against the Taliban and its allies.  From 2002-2006 the United States and its Afghan allies made valuable in-roads in developing Afghan institutions, such as establishing an elected transitional government and strengthening the Afghan National Army and Police.  Former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates described Afghanistan in the following way in an opinion piece he wrote for the New York Times, “Schools were opened to girls, women participated in both businesses and the political process, and a relatively free and open media quickly emerged. Levels of violence throughout the country were relatively low, and conditions improved to the point that many refugees returned home.”  Afghanis seemed to be energized at the prospect of American backed peace and to finally put years of civil war and oppressive Taliban rule behind them.  In 2006, Pakistani President Pervez Musarraf made an agreement with the tribal leaders in Waziristan that would dramatically impact the conflict in Afghanistan.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are a rugged mountainous region in on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border that for decades have been semi-autonomous from the Pakistani government.  Historically, the FATA were a breeding ground for terrorism and littered with terror training camps that Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups used to perpetrate attacks on the west, including the 9/11 attacks.  After the route of the Taliban in 2001, many of the Afghani Taliban sought refuge in the FATA in Pakistan to re-group and re-arm.  As their numbers grew, the US and the west put pressure on President Musharraf to act against extremists thriving in the FATA.  Musharraf briefly led a counter terrorism operation in the FATA in the early 2000s, but it quickly became unpopular with the Pakistani military, Musharraf’s political base.  Pakistani military command saw themselves as fighting against their fellow countrymen on behalf of the United States and therefore, the operation failed.  In 2006, Musharraf struck a deal with the Taliban and other tribal leaders in the FATA.  The controversial peace deal stipulated that Pakistan would withdraw all the 8,000 soldiers from the North Waziristan region of the FATA, it would economically compensate tribal leaders for losses during the operation, release 165 militants from Pakistani custody and allow militants to continue to carry weapons.  In return, the militants agreed to cease cross border infiltration attacks into Afghanistan and to prevent attacks on the Pakistani military.  This agreement essentially gave the Taliban and Al-Qaeda safe haven in the FATA.  By July 2007, militants renounced their agreement in the deal and cross-border infiltrations surged.

2009-2021

By 2009, the Taliban and especially the Pakistani backed, and based Haqqani Network (sub-set Taliban group) began to gain power and influence in several rural provinces in Afghanistan.  In response to this shift in momentum, the Obama Administration approved a “surge” of troop numbers bringing an additional 30,000 soldiers.  This brought the total number of US soldiers in Afghanistan to around 100,000 by the end of 2010.  In conjunction with the momentum shift in favor of the Taliban, corruption, infighting, incompetence, and governmental mismanagement on behalf of the Afghan government fueled mistrust among the people.  The Afghan security service seemed to be split between patriotic Afghans who were willing to fight for the betterment of their country and those who were simply interested in bettering their own personal position.  This problem manifested itself at all levels of government.

On May 2, 2011, the US struck a major victory in the fight against Al-Qaeda with the killing of Osama Bin Laden during a special operations mission in Pakistan.  His death sent the Taliban on the attack as they went on a string of high-profile assassinations of prominent Afghan politicians and increased their cross-border attacks from the FATA.

Doha Negotiations and Biden’s Withdrawal

President Biden was operating in part on a negotiated agreement between his predecessor, President Donald Trump and the Taliban from February 2020.  Inexplicably, the Trump Administration during the negotiations in Doha, Qatar invited the Taliban to the negotiating table without inviting the sitting Afghan government.  It was during these negotiations that the Trump Administration agreed to troop reductions if the Taliban in return agreed to cease advancing on the capital, Kabul.  In addition, the Trump Administration requested the Taliban promise to never harbor terror groups that would launch another attack against the United States and that they would not attack US forces during the withdrawal process.  Afterward, the Afghan government told the Taliban it was ready for negotiations to begin for the future of Afghanistan; the US government assumed that in good faith the Taliban would come to the negotiating table to discuss a final peace deal, that assumption never materialized.

In August 2021 the Biden Administration ordered a full evacuation of all military personnel from Afghanistan, including private military contractors.  Shockingly, the withdrawal was only supposed to take a matter of weeks.  The Biden Administration, illogically forged ahead with a withdrawal plan put in motion by the Trump Administration, knowing the Taliban had done nothing they had promised.  Most notably, the fact that since that agreement was signed, the Taliban had still not come to negotiate any peace agreement with the Afghan Government nor provided any indication of positive changes from the US perspective.

The world watched on August 15, 2021, as the Taliban overran hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces in a matter of days and took control of the capital city of Kabul taking control of Afghanistan as the Afghan president fled the country.  Thousands of Afghans and foreigners alike rushed the airport in Kabul to get out of Afghanistan before the inevitable Taliban reign began.  President Biden in the days following the catastrophe doubled down on his decision, claiming no one could have anticipated the events that took place.  The truth is that both President Trump and President Biden ignored the advice from their respective military and national security advisers who warned of the exact series of events that occurred in the hasty US withdrawal.  The only difference is President Biden ultimately did not heed the warning, where President Trump came to the realization that he did not want to preside over another Vietnam-type evacuation from Kabul.

Lessons from history

One of the most frustrating aspects of the withdrawal from Afghanistan are the lessons that should have been learned in the process.  Firstly, this was not the first time the United States hastily exited a theater of war with catastrophic consequences.  In 2011, under the Obama Administration the US withdrew most of its soldiers and ceased all combat operations in Iraq.  The decision came at the height of instability during the “Arab Spring” uprisings around the region and resulted in the rise of the Islamic State not even three years later.  The US did not learn the consequences of overestimating the resolve of the local security establishment in the face of a power vacuum.  More importantly, the US underestimated the organization, zeal and capabilities of extremist groups once thought to be on the fringe in such an environment.

Second, the United States was not consistent in holding its regional partners accountable, notably Pakistan.  From the beginning, the United States either did not understand the nature of Pakistani involvement in the Afghan conflict, or simply did not find it feasible or important enough to hold them accountable.  Despite Pakistan’s continued amicable relationship with the Taliban and similarly minded extremist groups for at least the last 20 years, Pakistan has received over $5 billion in civilian assistance and over $1 billion in emergency humanitarian response since 2009.  Since invading Afghanistan, Pakistan, primarily through the ISI has on more than one occasion appeared to be operating counter to US national security interests.

Third, the United States was not honest with itself regarding the Afghan government and security establishment’s capabilities at the time of its withdrawal.  In the case of Afghanistan, I would estimate this to be the case since roughly 2009 when the Taliban began making serious gains in the countryside.  The United States at best did not think the vast corruption among the Afghan institutions to be an impediment to self-determination, however at worst, the US did not realize the problem existed or how problematic it was.  It was not uncommon to see military equipment, weapons, uniforms etc. for sale on the black market, or for Afghan commanders to steal their soldiers’ wages and food.  American tax dollars being used to fund the Afghan National Army and police would in the end be used to arm the very extremists it was supposed to be fighting.

Lastly, just like in Iraq the United States through the two decades of fighting in Afghanistan did not develop a clear exit strategy or an understanding of when that strategy would be implemented.  Although each of the four US administrations had made their position clear for the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, there never seemed to be a thought-out comprehensive withdrawal plan put forth that transcended each individual president.  The likelihood of a politically motivated hasty decision dramatically increased in probability, especially considering the political gridlock and economic difficulty currently affecting the US.

Ultimately, the United States invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan.  Over 3,500 coalition soldiers died since the war began in 2001, with 2,311 of those deaths being US soldiers.  20,660 US soldiers were wounded during the conflict while it’s estimated that roughly 64,100 Afghan soldiers and police officers were killed since 2001.  In addition, an estimated 111,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured since 2009.

The Taliban now have access to countless numbers of American weapons, ammunition, and military technology that they have taken from the routed Afghan security forces.  Short of pandering to the cameras, the Taliban have not taken a single concrete step in any of the reforms they promised to enact.  They have done nothing to distance themselves from Al-Qaeda and in the first few days of their rule have already begun to beat and execute dissidents in the streets.  Although the US and coalition presence in Afghanistan served as a bulwark against hostile forces from manifesting themselves until now, it begs the question of whether the current state of Afghanistan truly leaves the US is in a better national security situation compared to 2001 when it all started.

 “The outcome in Afghanistan still matters in terms of American interests. We turned our backs on Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989; we must not do so again after the last of our troops depart. We must assure the Afghans of our continuing support — and sustain that support — through every means available short of ground troops. The consequences of another Taliban takeover in Kabul would not be limited to the people of Afghanistan.” – Robert Gates (Former Secretary of Defense for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama)

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