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The end of a never-ending war: A look back at Afghanistan’s history and where it will go next

Image Courtesy[Mohammad Rahmani, Unsplash]

Roar writer Scarlett Yu on NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the history of the war and where the country is going next

Spanning four different Presidencies, the War in Afghanistan is the longest in American history. During that time, the United States’ position on why it intervened in the country has changed and become convoluted, the public have lost confidence in the “War on Terror” and thousands of American troops had been killed.

In April of this year, US President Joe Biden was blunt in his assessment: America would not commit to nation-building and that he would do what his predecessors could not, withdraw all American forces. Biden mostly kept in line with a deal signed by former President Donald Trump last year. He said all American troops would return along with Afghan interpreters who had assisted them throughout the war.

Immediately after President Biden made his plans clear for a US withdrawal, the dark shadow of the Taliban quickly swept across Afghanistan overwhelming the government forces. Their rise back into power was an unexpectedly fierce move that caught NATO by surprise. Hopes of a smooth, comprehensive withdrawal quickly evaporated.

As the Taliban returned to power for the first time since 2001, chaos set in. People, desperate for refuge in the US or Britain, swarmed Kabul airport. Despite the generous refugee programme, the heartbreaking reality is that many Afghans could not make it out. While Biden’s decision to end the 20-year war is backed by a sizeable majority of Americans, he was heavily criticised for his handling.

The events of the past few months raise many questions. What’s really happened in Afghanistan for the past two decades? What was the original goal of the NATO intervention? And, of course, what went wrong?

War comes to America

While the motivation for America’s dual conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has become convoluted, it began as unapologetically simple. On September 11th 2001, the World Trade Center in New York City was attacked. Two planes flew crashed into the Twin Towers on a horrifying day no one would forget; almost 3,000 people died.

President George W. Bush made an address that evening and declared that America was at war against terrorism. In the coming weeks, NATO forces united to invade Afghanistan and remove the Taliban regime from power. Intelligence had confirmed that the regime was providing refuge for Al-Qaeda terrorists who were responsible for 9/11.

The battle was quick. American forces quickly ousted the extremist regime. The Bush administration confidently declared victory and his approval ratings soared. But President Bush’s optimism proved rash as in the years following the victory the US failed to come up with a long-term strategy for peace and stability.

Yes we can?

By the mid-2000s, the War in Afghanistan had become deeply unpopular with the American electorate as casualties mounted and the end seemed even further out of sight. President Bush fell out of favour, contributing to his Republican Party’s crushing defeat in several national elections. After receiving the clear backing of the American people, new President Barack Obama announced a major shift in the Afghanistan strategy from nation-building to a more refined approach that included training Afghans to govern their own country and continuing to fight terrorism.

Over the next few years, the US built up the Afghan Defence Forces, which only had 26,000 soldiers in 2006, with the introduction of advanced military equipment, logistics and western combat tactics. In addition, the country had held its first democratic elections in 2004 and granted new rights to women and minorities. Moreover, in 2011, American special forces successfully killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin-Laden.

However, the Obama approach had its shortcomings too. During the time when the Afghan army was slowly growing in numbers, some members of the Taliban took advantage of these time gaps to escape to neighbouring Pakistan for sanctuary. Richard Hass, President of the Council on Foreign Affairs, suggested, the US wasn’t active in understanding the foreign culture and history of the local community.

Afghanistan is plagued by “endemic corruption” and ethnic conflict. Western reforms simply could not overcome the cemented culture. As a result, the Afghan security forces proved inefficient and weak against Taliban fighters prompting President Obama to re-commit 30,000 new American troops to Afghanistan. While maintaining a significant troop presence denied Al-Qaeda a safe haven and likely prevented terrorist attacks in the west, it was not a financially-feasible long-term strategy for the US.

Where it went wrong

Looking back at the last twenty years, it’s possible to analyse where America went wrong in its Afghanistan engagement. As Husain Haqqanni clearly pointed out, one of America’s failures in Afghanistan lies in the lack of a coherent plan: “there was never a strategy, just a series of tactical moves.” The tactics went back and forth from fighting terrorism to democratisation to infrastructure upgrades and back again.

Indeed, if the US sought a more focused plan and had a clearer motive of what they’re battling against, the war could’ve ended more efficiently. Fewer casualties would incur as a result and, perhaps, the extremist poison would have been driven out of Afghanistan for good. Of course, this task of defeating terrorists was not easy in the slightest. America was fighting in circles, against an extreme force invisible to the public eye, but prevalent everywhere in local areas and mountainous regions; there’s a reason Afghanistan has earned its nickname, “the graveyard of empires”. As a result, twenty years have passed, and Afghanistan is still plagued by “war, crime, and corruption” and the Taliban are as savage as ever.

Put simply, the US underestimated the Taliban fighters, as they had done before with the Vietnamese and North Koreans. While they were under-resourced, they waited in the shadows to rebuild their jihadist empire. The inherent complexity of America governing an unfamiliar, foreign society allowed the Taliban members to hide in plain site by disguising themselves as ordinary civilians. Therefore, even if a major group of the Taliban disintegrated at the hands of the US military, they’d still be able to reconstitute themselves somewhere else.

What’s next for the “Islamic Emirate” of Afghanistan?

Now that that Taliban are back in power the question turns to how they will govern a country that is very much different from what it was 20 years ago. Will they revert to the ultra-conservative Islamic tradition found in Saudi Arabia? What will be the fate of western reforms made under the now-defunct republic?

The extremist group claims to have changed and has tepidly endorsed some liberal reforms including women’s education and freedom of speech. However, according to civilians on the ground, the Taliban still prohibit any un-Islamic behaviour like music and videos and ban girls’ education. To showcase their unquestionable power, they punish criminals in shockingly violent ways and even perform bloodied executions in public.

Their brand of “brutal justice” may be welcome to some Afghans who feel that their country has been lawless for the last twenty years but their ruthlessness still incites horror for the majority who are not sympathetic to extremist views. A local shopkeeper recounted his experience trapped under the shadow of Taliban reign in Kandahar and expressed despair for their return to power, “if the Taliban come back, they will bring darkness.”

Darkness has surely arrived. Thus far, the United States and its allies have refused to recognise the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the successor to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, as long as they violate basic human rights. However, China, Russia and Iran, have already expressed warmth towards the new regime.

Another blank page is whether the Taliban will cooperate in allowing American and British citizens as well as green card holders still in Afghanistan to return to their country of origin. There has been some indication that the group would be open to doing so but that is still up in the air.

There are many unanswered questions. It remains to be seen what role a new Taliban-run Afghanistan will play on the world stage, if it will embrace liberal reforms and seek to shed its extremist image. In the meantime, though, the conclusion to this war is simple: America and its NATO allies have left the Afghan people as they found them, powerless, alone and at the mercy of a violent, extremist regime.

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