Understanding Politics: The Afghanistan War

Understanding Politics: The Afghanistan War

By Le Phan Khánh Huy

On August 15th, 2021, the world woke up to the worst news possible that many political pundits were wary of: Kabul had fallen. Along with the fall of the historical capital of Afghanistan, the U.S-backed democratic government was formally dissolved, and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The attackers were from the Taliban, and they soon proclaimed the re-founding of the Islamic State. To understand the significance behind this event and how it would mark the beginning of an uncertain time for the people of Afghanistan, we believe it is best to revisit the overall conflict and understand the stakes behind it.

The Players

To begin with, let’s talk about the participants of the war. First, we have the Taliban themselves. Born out of the Soviet-Afghan War, the Taliban is a group of Islamic fundamentalists aiming to impose strict enforcement of a religious law known as Sharia Law. Under such law, women are heavily restricted to a certain appearance and banned from all forms of education and employment . In addition to this, the regime was also against foreign influence in the form of Western youth culture and the like. In short, the Taliban is your no-fun-allowed old uncle whose social media is full of  misogynist comments and posts criticizing the youth. Those who defend their cause claim that they simply want to preserve the tradition of their homeland and avoid the complications of modern society, though the validity of this claim is to be questioned.

On the other hand, we have the U.S which needs little introduction: one of the most developed, wealthy countries and a current superpower world leader. Though, owing to their competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the U.S. has earned a mixed reputation for being a bit of a bully. Ever since the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. has given itself an obligation to bring the gifts of “freedom and democracy” to the world, sometimes using less than savory methods. Surprisingly enough, however, the U.S. was initially reluctant to get involved in Afghanistan (the reason for which we will go through later in this article).

Finally, we get to talk about the man himself, the infamous Muslim terrorist: Osama bin Laden. The mastermind behind the 9/11 attack on U.S. soil and various other anti-America terrorist attacks, bin Laden was the face of terrorism for the mainstream media. A Saudi Arabia-bred son of a construction tycoon, bin Laden initially partook in the Soviet-Afghan War as a jihadist (holy war warrior) fighting for the Islamic cause. After the war, he moved back to Saudi Arabia where he gradually grew disillusioned with the government and the U.S. influence on the Muslim world. Along with his new supporters from al-Qaeda, an Islam fundamentalist group, bin Laden began waging a holy war and funded terrorist attacks against the U.S. all over the Middle East.

The Brief Timeline

A Broken Nation

After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan following their failed attempt in establishing a Middle East communist state, a new Islamic State of Afghanistan government was established by the mujahideen (holy war guerilla fighters). The initial effort to consolidate the power of the interim government against local warlords was unsuccessful. In the midst of all this, a group of ultraconservative mujahideen calling themselves the Taliban crossed the border from Pakistan. They were able to bring the country under their fold and quickly imposed their harsher interpretation of Islam on the country. By 1996, the Taliban formally allied with al-Qaeda and captured Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, effectively establishing themselves as the de-facto ruler of the country.

The members of the former government soon fled to the North where they ironically allied with the warlords there in the name of an anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance”. Led by the charismatic Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance promised democratic principles and women’s rights to the people of Afghanistan to gather both popular support and foreign aids. While their commitment might be questionable, it has no doubt earned them a lot of support from the world.

The United States was on the side of the Northern Alliance, of course, but they were reluctant in providing further support in fear of repeating another “Vietnam War”. However, this would change with a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil by al-Qaeda.

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

On September 11th, 2001, at 8:45 a.m., the first plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. What followed would go down in history as one of America’s darkest hours. Three more planes were hijacked and crashed into the remaining south tower, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. This was the second time the homeland of the Americans was directly attacked, after Pearl Harbor. This shook the core of not only the U.S. but also the rest of the world. Before the event, major terrorist attacks had been somewhat limited to the Middle East, the homeland of Islam. Now that the enemies had brought the war home, the U.S. government was given a clear justification to switch from passive defense to active offense.

The perpetrators of the attack were identified as members of al-Qaeda making Osama bin Laden the mastermind of the horrific act. The U.S. demanded the Taliban government, which was hosting bin Laden and his group in their country, to extradite the terrorist leader to the U.S. to receive judgment. The Taliban refused and then-President George W. Bush greenlit a proper declaration of war. While there were concerns about such drastic action, the anger caused by the attack had led Congress to almost vote on war unanimously in Afghanistan.

(Though there have been outside claims that the U.S.’ intervention in the Middle East was primarily due to the abundant oil supplies there, given the scope of this article, we would aim to  report the main narrative which was given by the media at large.)

A Short War… or It Should Have Been

On October 7th of the same year, the first bombing campaign commenced and U.S. ground troops, supported by NATO, made their way into Afghanistan 12 days later. Despite the presence of American soldiers, most of the fighting was still between the Taliban and their Afghan opponents, namely the Northern Alliance. By November, the Taliban was on full retreat and the anti-Taliban forces were able to take back control of the country. The remnants of the fundamentalist group and their ally, al-Qaeda, continued to evade capture, however. With the help of the United Nations, various Afghan political institutions were able to meet on mutual ground and reached an agreement for an interim government led by Hamid Karzai. A formal government was later elected but it was marred by accusations of corruption and factionalism.

NATO and the United States were committed to helping the new Afghan government in rebuilding and establishing a Western-style democracy. Yet, by misunderstanding the delicate nature of tribal politics in Afghanistan and trying to recreate a Western system for an Eastern society, the task was met with huge inefficiency and outright failures. Already, the cracks were beginning to show.

By 2003, the war was believed to have largely finished. On the helm of the aircraft carrier U.S.S Abraham Lincoln, President Bush gave his aged-like-milk “Mission Accomplished” speech announcing an end to “major combat”. Nevertheless, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were still at large, now in hiding and biding their time.

One Step Forward and Three Steps Back

As the years went on, the hunt for Osama bin Laden seemed futile by each day and even the NATO-U.S. coalition in Afghanistan witnessed a strain in relations over the reconstruction effort. On the Afghan side, things were not better. In a second national election, then-President Karzai continued to incur controversies with suspicions cast over the integrity of the event. Corruption and ethnic tensions persisted. Not only did they prevent the national government from coming after insurgents, but they were also slowly exposing the weakness of democracy and the people were losing their patience.

As for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, they were able to evade capture time and time again with the assistance of Pakistan, Afghanistan’s next-door neighbour. Oh, did we not mention that? The Pakistani military and intelligence services are believed to have supported the Taliban substantially, not just by giving them safe havens to regroup but also notable material and logistical support. Obviously, their government will deny such a claim at any given point. Else, they will probably face more sanctions than even North Korea by the U.S. and its allies. Yet, the motive was clear, the Pakistanis wanted to ensure a friendly government on its border that would not sell them out to the Indians.

An Inevitable Ending

Nevertheless, the situation finally improved by 2011 after a new President had taken over the White House. On May 2nd, 2011, President Barack Obama approved Operation Neptune Spear. Upon receiving their order, SEAL Team Six began their raid on an al-Qaeda hideout in Pakistan and during which, successfully eliminated the most wanted man alive at last. Osama bin Laden, after more than 10 years of running, was finally put to rest in the sea according to Islamic law.

Regardless, as the threat of al-Qaeda was finally removed from the equation, the Taliban was still very much alive. Yet, under domestic pressure against another prolonged war, the Obama administration announced that they would gradually pull out most active troops stationed in the Middle East. In their stead, a professionally trained native Afghan force would take over the task of peacekeeping. NATO countries followed suit. It was the beginning of the end. The government of Afghanistan kept losing the favor of its citizens, especially the tribal people, while the Taliban slowly regained its strength. The Afghan army was also a mess, heavily reliant on U.S.-NATO troops. As a result, when the Americans announced their withdrawal of troops, it equated a death sentence to the Afghan government.

Relations between the Afghanistan government and the Western coalition were also seeing a massive strain. Despite later attempts from the Ghani administration to restore relations with the U.S. such as the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with Obama, the damage was done, and anti-American sentiment was on the rise in the country. Efforts for reconciliation with the Taliban from both sides were hampered by the other. The most prolific of which was the Doha negotiation between the U.S. and the Taliban. Curiously enough, it left the Afghan government out of the negotiation table.

Trump’s deal with the Taliban was simple, maybe a bit TOO simple: the U.S. would gradually pull out all its troops and end the war in Afghanistan (a signature achievement that would likely secure re-election for him) while the Taliban would promise to not harbor any terrorist in the future. The release of several key Taliban leaders would also prove critical to the shifting tide of the war. Another President came and went. When it was time for Joe Biden to take the helm of the great U.S. ship, the end was nigh. The President was committed to completing the withdrawal and by 2021, with the last of the American troops out of the country, a poorly prepared Afghan army was steamrolled by their Taliban counterparts. The Afghanistan War was over.

So Now What?

Now that the Taliban has returned to Kabul and re-established themselves as the ruler of all Afghanistan, the future of the country seems uncertain. In the last few days before the Fall of Kabul, various organizations – especially those fighting for women’s rights – have raised their concerns over the Taliban’s original reactionary stance on the issue. While Taliban spokespeople have tried to convince the world that the new Taliban is no longer associating with its past self, very few actions so far have been committed to reassuring watchdog groups. Rivals and opponents of the U.S. such as Russia and China celebrate the occasion as yet another thaw to America’s “neo-imperialism”, or domination by economic scheme. However, even they themselves knew better than to directly associate and celebrate the Taliban’s victory.

As for the U.S. themselves, the legacy of the Afghanistan War would surely go down in history as a huge controversy. Was it a success or a failure? After all, the U.S.’ original goal of capturing and/or eliminating dangerous terrorists such as bin Laden was achieved. The task of state-building was merely a side objective. Nevertheless, the failure of the Afghanistan War reminds many of the memories from the Vietnam War where many mistakes were repeated: a lack of consistent full commitment from the U.S., non-mutual cooperation, and most detrimental of all, a lack of self-reliance from the host country. This is a lesson many nations and individuals can learn from in their future endeavors; albeit fighting for human rights or completing a personal project.


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