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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Explained: The United States in Afghanistan, 19 years later

Following the attacks on September 11, 2001 that resulted in the loss of nearly 3,000 people, the US blamed Osama bin Laden and held the al-Qaeda leader responsible.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 23, 2021 7:25:01 am
President Biden had ordered 100 percent removal of American troops from Afghanistan, bringing to an end the country's longest war.(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

For close to two decades, the US has been fighting a war in Afghanistan. During this time, although the US federal government has contemplated exiting the country, citing among other reasons, political instability in Afghanistan, it has not happened yet. As things stand now, the country is still fighting the longest war in US history with no clear indication of when it will end.

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How did this begin?

Following the attacks on September 11, 2001 that resulted in the loss of nearly 3,000 people, the US blamed Osama bin Laden and held the al-Qaeda leader responsible. The United States forced NATO to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter for the first time in the organisation’s history, according to which 60 countries sent their troops to fight in what the US called ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’.

Approximately a month later, on October 7, the day he dramatically announced US-led air-strikes in Afghanistan, then US President George W Bush said, “”We did not ask for this mission, but we will fulfil it.” At that time, the two justification that Bush gave for these airstrikes were “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime” and because the Taliban had refused to extradite bin Laden to the United States.

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In a span of two months, facing the onslaught of the US and coalition forces, the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan weakened considerably. Many leaders fled to neighbouring Pakistan and by 2004, a new US-backed government took over Kabul. It wasn’t that the Taliban had completely disappeared. They were very much operational along the Afghanistan-Pakistani border, trading mainly in arms, drugs and minerals.

Following a temporary setback after the first onslaught of US-led forces, the Taliban was back and wrested control, developing new methods of counter-attacks, the most prominent being suicide attacks.

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What happened next?

If the United States had assumed that it would be able to engage NATO forces in its fight indefinitely, it would have been mistaken. In 2014, NATO forces announced an end to their combat mission in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan created a vacuum that was quickly occupied by Taliban forces as they began regaining control of lost territory. According to a 2018 BBC report, by that year, the Taliban “was openly active across 70% of Afghanistan.”

What resulted in a partial winding down?

In May 2011, US President Obama ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden’s residential compound in Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, in an operation known as ‘Operation Neptune Spear’, that resulted in the killing of bin Laden. While the capture and killing of Bin Laden was questioned by international organisations like Amnesty for its legal and ethical aspects, it was welcomed by a majority of the American public and allies of the United States.

A Bloomberg report points to war fatigue witnessed in the US that prompted the Obama government to begin the process of withdrawing US military forces from Afghanistan. “Doubts that the Afghan military could stand on its own prompted him to leave the last of them in place when he turned the presidency over to Trump in January 2017,” the Bloomberg analysis said.

With the Trump government in the White House, according to this analysis, it was at the urging of the Pentagon that Trump deployed an additional 3,500 troops to the country. But the new administration made little headway in the resolution process. Three years later, in 2020, Trump “struck his deal with the group and began another drawdown” in Afghanistan, “frustrated by the Taliban’s tenacity”.

Why has the US’s war in Afghanistan lasted so long?

According to a BBC analysis, there are several different factors at play. The withdrawal of NATO troops, combined with the lack of effectiveness of the Afghan government and military, as well as the tenacity of the Taliban to regroup after each military loss, has resulted in the long-drawn war. The BBC analysis points to the US’ lack of a clear political strategy when it comes to withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Then there is also “the fact each side is trying to break what has become a stalemate – and that the Taliban have been trying to maximise their leverage during peace negotiations,” a BBC report says. The report also points to the role that Pakistan has played in supporting and nurturing the Taliban, despite Islamabad’s denials and Washington D.C.’s insistence that it do more to cut off assistance to the terrorist group.

In addition to the already existing issue of the Taliban, now forces have to contend with the Islamic State’s presence that have been held responsible for some of the most brutal violence in the country and elsewhere in the world.

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