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A Brief History of the US War in Afghanistan

The author is from Pakistan and picked up writing in a big way during lockdown.

A Fortified Building in Kabul

A Fortified Building in Kabul

Afghanistan is a country that has been subjected to war for nearly half a century. Since the Soviet invasion, it has seen widespread destruction, massive migration, and paralyzed governments with limited state control.

It was not long ago that this war-torn region saw prosperity and happiness. This landlocked region was home to mighty kingdoms and empires. Indeed, the conquerors of the Indian subcontinent were primarily native Afghans who battled their counterparts in India and extended their kingdoms. But the rise and fall of time has now placed Afghanistain in a precarious situation. After decades of unstable governments and internal conflict, it stands as one of the poorest regions of the world.

Invasion by the USSR

The USSR's urge to reach warm waters brought war to the region. The 1970s was the time of the cold war, when both the US and USSR, trying to gain an advantage over each other, adopted the policy of hardcore diplomacy and invasion in certain conditions.

The Soviet incursion of Kabul and installation of a friendly face as the president were seen as the direct threats by the US and its ally Pakistan. Due to the ongoing geopolitical tensions between two superpowers, a war was initiated on the diplomatic front with both engaging their allies for retaliation and counteroffensives.

After the deployment of army troops and the toppling of the incumbent government, Pakistan and the US became very concerned about the situation. It was a perilous time as the experts predicted the next attack would be on Pakistan after the communist regime had formed a stronghold in Afghanistan.

Proxy War and the Creation of the Mujahideen

Pakistan received billions of dollars of American taxpayers money, military hardware, and tons of diplomatic support to thwart the Soviet Army. A proxy war in the region was started as thousands of young radicals were brainwashed, sent to fight invading forces with American weapons and intelligence information from the CIA and tactical support from the Pakistan army and its intelligence agencies.

These men were called ‘Mujahedeen'. They were supplied with American weapons and received basic training in combat and weapon handling from Pakistan. Under the religious banner of "Jihad," these fighters were urged to fight against the invading USSR.

Soviet Defeat and Withdrawal of Forces

Unfamiliar and rugged terrain, low-tech military hardware, bogus military planning, and massive insurgency by resistance fighters led to an embarrassing defeat of the Soviet Red Army . The jihadi fighters being natives were quick to spot loopholes in transportation and logistics. The Soviet army being unable to resupply its forces in remote areas was limited to urban basecamps. Amid a failing economy and the huge financial burden of war, Moscow decided to withdraw all forces from Afghan soil in February 1989.

Start of the Civil War

It was a crucial moment in Afghan history. Those fighters who fought valiantly against Soviets had to be decomissioned and integrated into society. A strong central government was the need of the hour. But the exact opposite happened. Warlords and tribal leaders became de facto rulers of areas under their influence and began to hinder the working of central government. This caused massive infighting among the groups. Those radicals that were used against Russia were now used by these military leaders to capture more territory and boost strength to get a piece of Kabul.

The Taliban Uprising and their Ascendency to Power

The central government was paralyzed and limited to certain areas. And most of the Afghan land was still ruled by tribal and rebel forces. A full-blown conflict started between the Afghan central government and rebels in 1992 (after the failure of negotiations). This civil war led to great unrest and turbulence. The country needed a stabilizing factor. There, a notorious name “Taliban” rose to the occasion. Taliban started as students and activists who fought against invading the army of Moscow. In fact, the word “Talib “means “seeker”, which could be interpreted as “student”. These students turned gorilla warriors acted as a uniting factor dominating all smaller factions and finally toppling the Kabul regime in 1996. Taliban became very powerful in a very short time and gained popularity among the general public as their dominance led to the stoppage of self-conflict.

A Taliban Fighter With His Weapon

A Taliban Fighter With His Weapon

Terrorism and the Beginning of US War in Afghanistan

After the Taliban formed their government, traces of peace were observed. But the northern alliance (previous Afghan government members and other militia leaders) started to fight against the incumbent Taliban government. It is interesting to note that from 1979 till now no government has been able to get control of all Afghan land (even the Taliban could not control all areas). Nevertheless, the Taliban regime was occasionally accused of terrorism, violence and ruthlessness. The deteriorating peace and presence of various terrorist groups rang bells in Washington. International HR agencies and observers pointed out worse living conditions for children and women. Growing lawlessness and ascending extremism were seen as a direct threat to world peace.

All these concerns climaxed on 9 Sep. 2001, when Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack of the World Trade Centre which led to immense loss of life and property. This led to the start of America's longest war. American and NATO forces were quick to topple the concurrent Taliban government. A new set-up was formed. The army was swiftly deployed, and bases were constructed.

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NATO and US vs the Taliban

Americans of the 1990s, just like their Cold War contemporaries were very naïve and had limited knowledge of ground realities. What seemed a matter of weeks and months, went on for years and finally for decades.

With brute use of force and advanced military hardware, Americans were able to defeat the Taliban in cities but when it came to mountainous valleys and far-flung areas, armies faced huge resistance and were handicapped. Lack of connectivity and communication limitations caused extreme problems. As heavy equipment could not be moved to villages and mountainous regions, the army personnel were simply helpless in a hostile and unfamiliar territory. The use of air forces was restricted due to hills and underground caves, and it was impossible for ground troops to sweep millions of acres of hilly territory. As a result, low-grade insurgency never stopped. Occasional onslaughts between the US army and the Taliban were reported. Both claimed victories. Thousands of people were killed; millions were displaced or made homeless.

American nation-building proved to be a futile exercise. Billions of dollars were pumped in to build roads and factories, but a constant stage of war caused damage to the already built infrastructure. Roads and factories constructed by American money were often subjected to acts of vandalism.

A strong antagonism against the US as an invading force in the minds of Afghan people was constantly being fueled by the Taliban and their allies. This led to a continuous insurgency where peace was nowhere to be seen. Now after 20 years of long conflict, US and NATO forces are leaving the region with a gloomy prospect.

Taliban Inside Presidential Palace in Kabul

Taliban Inside Presidential Palace in Kabul

The Doha Talks and the Fall of Kabul

After two decades of war, the US finally initiated dialogue with Taliban commanders. These peace talks were held in Doha, Qatar. On February 29, 2020, a comprehensive agreement was signed by both parties. This contract, which was backed by UNSC, included the provisions of withdrawal of foreign forces and Taliban assurances that Afghanistan would not become a breeding ground for terrorist outfits.

As the US gradually reduced the number of troops, the Taliban launched a major offensive against Afghan forces. There was a massive surge in attacks on the Afghan security forces and political administration. Carefully avoiding any US casualtis, the militia forces swiftly gained control of major cities and border crossings.

The intra-Afghan dialogue that was deemed necessary for sustainable peace was constantly ignored during the whole military adventure. Hesitancy and rigidity in attitudes by the Ghani administration and Taliban leaders prevented the start of intra-Afghan peace talks. The Afghan army, already demoralized by a series of defeats and the loss of American airpower could not cope with zealous Taliban fighters. The continuous state of civil war and the fall of major cities to the hands of Taliban forces led to the collapse of the Afghan government.

On 15th August, Ashraf Ghani and his majority cabinet fled the country. The flight of the president from Kabul created a power vacuum that marked the end of the civil war, with the Taliban finally getting the complete hold of the country.

Key Taliban Officials and Ministers in Newly-formed Government

Key Taliban Officials and Ministers in Newly-formed Government

Future Prospects

After taking control of Kabul, the Taliban have now announced a "caretaker" government. This "all-male" government will be headed by Mohammad Hasan Akhund, who was a close associate of Mullah Omer and deputy foreign minister in this first-ever Taliban regime.

In this era of globalization, no country can live on its own. Because Afghanistan has seen internal conflict for more than four decades, the Taliban will now need money and trade to run the country. So, Americans should use economic and diplomatic leverage on the Taliban regime to prevent any further terrorist action from its soil.

The Taliban have a golden chance of getting international recognition by eradicating all terrorist outfits and giving due rights to its citizens. Afghans have already lost enough and cannot afford another two decades of war.


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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Abdullah Iqbal

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