Afghanistan: Origins of the war

As a multi-ethnic and landlocked country, Afghanistan has faced its fair share of foreign invaders. History has not been kind to the many emperors or invaders that have ambitiously entered this region to expand their empires hence Afghanistan infamously earned its title of being the “Graveyard of empires”. From the Greeks and Mongols to the Arab-Muslims, the indigenous Afghan tribes persisted under various foreign occupiers until the modern state Afghanistan was founded by Ahmed shah Durrani. The next phase of history brought a century long power struggle between Britain and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Coined as the “The Great Game”, the British and the Soviet’s fought for dominance in Central Asia and its surrounding territories during the three Anglo-Afghan Wars[1].In 1919,the end of the third Anglo-Afghan marks the official date of independence of Afghanistan.

US invasion of Afghanistan

The United States of American first became involved in Afghanistan in the 1950’s through a series of infrastructural projects which aimed to rebuild the country after decades of conflict. They started funnelling significant amounts of money into Afghanistan in the 50’s and 60’s.At this point the USSR and USA were both funding large development projects in Afghanistan. During the 1970’s Afghanistan started titling towards the Soviet Union as its king at the time – Daoud Khan tapped into the USSR for economic and military help hence he was keen on being a stronger Ally to the Soviets which made the Americans increasingly nervous. He perfectly summed up this uncomfortable relationship when he famously said that “ I feel happiest when I light my American cigarettes with my Soviet matches”.[2]The country took a nosedive into communism as Daoud Khan was overthrown and a Marxist-Leninist government was established as a part of the Saur Revolution in 1978.[3]The repressive government faced uprisings from factions all over the country, soon the deteriorating domestic security and collapsing army prompted a full blown soviet invasion. Initially the US had no unified strategy to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan, the strategy was limited to funding scattered resistance groups whom had no common ideology or objective. Whereas the soviet invasion gave birth to a coalition between these groups known as the “Mujahedeen” which received regional and international support from the world. The Mujahedeen were culmination of many different ambitions and the US strategy aimed to selectively train the relatively more reactionary elements from amongst them to have a better chance against soviets. The CIA was not training the ordinary people that picked up a gun amidst the war, it focused on organising two prominent groups. The Islamist faction led by Gulbuddin hekmatyar and the freedom fighters under Ahmad shah Massoud. In addition, the US pressured Egypt to release a group of Islamist prisoners including Ayman al Zawahiri to bring foreign fighters to Afghanistan. The Americans made every effort to protect their self-interest in region, however in doing so they brought a faction called the Arab Mujahideen to Afghanistan which later went on to form Al-Qaeda. The country found temporary once again as the soviet troop withdrew in 1989 after the signing of the Geneva accords. The fall of the communist government and the failure of the U.N. to create an inclusive interim government, created a power vacuum in Afghanistan. The US had already withdrawn all economic and military help from Afghanistan. Under this backdrop, civil war emerged between former warring factions of the Mujahideen. The Taliban emerged as the newest actors in the conflict.[4]

The Taliban captured the majority of Afghanistan, they controlled areas from Kandahar to Kabul but revived extreme resistance from the Northern Alliance. They were received support from Osama bin laden in 1997 and were successful in creating the Islamic Emirate. At this point US footprint was still minimal in the region despite of Al-Qaeda being responsible for bombing two US embassies in Africa[5].The events of September 11, 2001 shaped the future US policy in Afghanistan. The Bush administration lauded mission “enduring freedom” in Afghanistan. The primary objective of this mission at the time was to bring Osama bin laden to justice and prevent all future terrorist attacks on US soil. Through an aggressive bombing campaign, the US started to weaken the Taliban until their government toppled and they were reduced to small ppockets of insurgency in remote areas of the country. The Taliban regime fell relatively quickly. Without the resources or the organization of the US military, they were in a weaker position. This is part of the reason why Bush choose to push forward instead of negotiating with them when they offered to to hand over Osama bin laden to a third party for trial[6].The 2002 National Security Strategy states that a failed nation is more dangerous to the United States than a conquering nation. Hence US and NATO forces turned towards rebuilding Afghanistan into a stable nation which could never be exploited against their interests.

US Strategy in Afghanistan

This paper examines the post-9/11 strategy in Afghanistan under the four successive administrations which propagated, inherited and continued the war for the next 20 year. Over the course of these 20 years, US objectives primarily stood on three pillars. Initially the US arrived in Afghanistan to dismantle and destroy Al-Qaeda. A few years later, they returned to overthrow the Taliban government, in the wake of which the state and its institution were left in shambles. Finally the US took it upon itself to restructure and rebuild the Afghan governance system, so that no terrorist network could thrive on its soil. Each administration with its own national security strategy documents attempted to steer the US in a new direction which would eventually lead them out of Afghanistan. 

Bush Administration

After accomplishing the narrowly established goals set after the events of 9/11, a key feature of the security policies were to strengthen and stabilize Afghanistan. The more ambition their objectives grew, the longer they stayed in Afghanistan. The US adopted the rhetoric that only a stable and socio-economically sound Afghanistan would guarantee no future attacks on US soil. Nation building in Afghanistan was always an ambitious task, the tribalism, ethnic hostilities and physical terrain were big challenges to counter, especially when the US itself was not fully committed to its goals. Funds started pouring into Afghanistan at unsustainable rates from the US and NATO. Afghan institutions were too weak to handle such a out-pour hence it bred corruption in the country. Simultaneously many of the US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan such as the $36 million dollar marines HQ or the $246 million ring road were either left incomplete or were never used in the first place. A lot of the funds allocated by the US to institutions or forces like the Task force for business and stability operations were spent “on indirect and support costs, not directly on projects in Afghanistan”.[7]

Consequently the wealth accumulated amongst politicians, military officials and war lords while society made little to no progress. The development projects often lacked the resources and personnel required for efficient results. The bush administration deployed 10,000 – 20,000 military troops during its first term, which was not sufficient enough in the first place considering the ambitious task at hand. However the administration approved minimal civilian deployments due to which the task of nation building was left to untrained military troops.

Official in Washington were also cautious of the consequences which would follow if a power vacuum was created in Afghanistan again. They feared that radicalism would devour the country hence Americans did what they do best – resort to the democratic peace theory as a one size fits all solution. However Washington choose to support a democratic government which centralized power in Kabul without taking the political history into context. The government of Hamad Karzai not only excluded tribal leaders but also participated in widespread corruption[8].Bush himself, hardly sugar coated the situation in Afghanistan, he acknowledged the bitter realities of the intervention. The interventions entailed more than just isolated strikes and covert missions, Afghanistan required a top to bottom socio-political restructuring. Internally, the US officials knew they could neither commit nor were they equipped to make that happen. However the administration firmly believed that the intervention was necessary hence the mediocre progress made in Afghanistan was more than enough to justify their presence. The 2004 elections and constitution gave an illusion of a politically stable state[9].

Under the strategy of this administration, military became the primary tool to achieve the security and diplomatic objectives of the US. The idea was the military success would be followed by stability. Moreover a vast military footprint also allowed the US to deploy more quickly from its bases and ensure a non-threatening state in the region. As diplomacy took a back-foot, the administration missed many opportunities that could have potentially cut the war short. However the bush administration was not open to negotiations with Taliban in 2001 or 2004.In 2003,the US took the decision to invade Iraq and naturally the attention and resources started to shift around[10].The NSS does not clearly define the conditions or elements which call for an intervention. The “war on terror “is narrowly defined and with time it had ever evolving objectives- perhaps which is why the US invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and could not be proven as a threat to US security. The war in Iraq removed the majority of resources and the best minds from Afghanistan which could be used to judge the level of US commitment to Afghanistan.

The bush administration’s “light approach” in Afghanistan gave time to the Taliban to regroup as a political force. They gradually regained ground in the remote areas, neglected by US forces. The Taliban were a different organization this time, they were the second generation to grow up in refugees camps on the borders of Pakistan and Iran. They had the will and purpose to fight. They had accumulated large funding’s and technology such as IED’s. The insurgency picked up momentum in a frustrated environment where the Afghans still felt occupied. While the US and its allies had poured a lot of money into the nation, the economic disparity was still intact. The Taliban had reinvented themselves but the US still lacked a clear vision and a unified strategy amongst themselves.

Obama Administration

The Obama administration, after an intense internal debate decided to approve of a surge in troop deployments to Afghanistan. Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy was relatively more nuanced, the 2010 NSS clearly defines Al-Qaeda and its affiliates as the prime threat to US security. However this strategy was anachronistic because by 2010, the US was at war with a different element than the one they originally started with. By August 2010, US forced in Afghanistan has reached 100,000.Obama ensured the American public that the surge in troop deployments were to create a stable environment which would allow for a peaceful US exit. He also set a timeline for the troop withdrawal which meant that the US would begin pulling troops out by 2011.Although the officials in Washington were aware of the mediocre progress in Afghanistan, they stayed involved to represent a greater US commitment to “Freedom”. In reality the US was committed to Afghanistan as long as it could keep a lid on the number of troop deployments. They always had one foot out the door which seriously undermined any effort to build a government or army that could stand on its own[11].

A major policy change was made after the killing of Osama bin laden by the Obama administration. Troop levels started to decrease and the administration indicated that they were prepared to place security responsibilities under the Afghan army. By his second term in office, Obama was at a crossroads. The majority of the American public were not in favour of staying in Afghanistan. In contrast the pentagon pressured the administration stay in order to avoid the same as the Iraq withdrawal. In December of 2014, the US and NATO officials held a ceremony to mark the “end of the war” in Afghanistan[12].10, 800 troops were withdrawn while the remaining were to be sent back to the US by 2016.These troops stayed behind to train and supervise the Afghan army hence the US and NATO claimed that their troops had adopted non combative roles. The pentagon created a special combat troop to target specific security threats and counterterrorism operations. Hence on ground, the US was still a major combative actor. The administrations was successful in disillusioning the world as news about Afghanistan did die down.

The emergence of the Islamic state in 2016 added another dimension into the Afghanistan war. The organisation quickly expanded into Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria. Washington introduced new rules of engagement with the Islamic state and approved troops to take an offensive strategy toward the organisation in Afghanistan. The majority of the combat was centred in eastern Afghanistan. New actors on the horizon forced the US to revaluate its strategy towards the Taliban. The officials in Washington places the Taliban under a nebulous category. They were still a hostile force but no longer an enemy of US interests. By the end of his tenure, Obama concluded that they security situation in Afghanistan was not stable enough for the full withdrawal that he had once promised. About 8,4000 troops remained in Afghanistan.

Trump Administration

As trump came into office, the Taliban insurgency had developed into a violent force which grew progressively stronger in the rural terrain. Under the Trump administration, the 2017 NSS states that the US would refocus its strategy towards its original objectives in Afghanistan – counterterrorism engagement. The administrations had inherited an internally weak Afghanistan with the Haqqani network, Islamic state etc contributing to the deteriorating security situation. The administration decided to stay in Afghanistan with an enlarged military footprint however this strategy gave little to no importance rebuilding the fragile governance system in Kabul. In a major foreign policy development, Trump announced his wider “South Asian Strategy” which is most notable for its regional myopia[13].The new strategy identifies Pakistan and India as as they two key players in the Afghanistan issue and makes no mention of other regional stakeholders I.e. Russia, China and Iran. Under this strategy, trump highlights Pakistan transgressions in the region by providing safe havens for terrorists. He was relatively more assertive than the previous administrations by urging that “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorists organisations, the Taliban and other groups”, and he did so without taking any of the regional tensions into consideration. All previous administrations has deep rooted mistrust in Pakistan’s double role in Afghanistan, however none of them made it a cornerstone in their wider Afghanistan policy like trump. Predictably these are the allegations that might force a Pakistan to forge closer ties with regional giant – China. Pak-US relations have been under constant stress after the killing of Osama bin laden in Abbottabad, however China investing billions of dollars in Pakistan through CPEC has changed everything. Pakistan is more than ever a Chinese client state hence the USA’s deteriorating influence might be a caution to tread lightly. Moreover while addressing regional actors in Afghanistan, trump managed to set the course for heightened tensions between the two most volatile rival in the region – India and Pakistan. He highlighted India’s contributions to the peace process in Afghanistan and called for a strategic partnership to increase its involvement. In contrast to Obama, trump’s strategy tilts in the favour on India which would naturally make their eastern neighbours nervous. While the contents of the strategy are up for evaluation, some analyst focus on the elements that were omitted from trump’s South Asia policy. Firstly the omission of China from this regional strategy indicates the government’s inability to think along strategic lines. China has many security and economic interests in Afghanistan. It has consistently displayed willingness to negotiate with the Taliban because of its security concerns in the Xinjiang region. The Chinese have ascribed these tensions to transnational forces operating out of Afghanistan. This in combination with the fact that China heavily relies on regional stability for its “one belt one raid” project, gave the US more than enough bargaining chips to negotiate with China. Yet the quadrilateral cooperation group-comprising of China, US, India and Pakistan failed to reach any kind of multilateral solution in Afghanistan. While talking about the peace process in Afghanistan, it is usually cited that it is hard to bring in any kind of stability without any assistance from Iran for numerous reasons. After the war in terror reached Afghanistan, millions of immigrants escaped to Iran because of their close cultural and religious ties. Iran shares and approximately 900km border with Afghanistan hence is an economic partner for trade and trade routes.Consequently Iran has considerable influence over Afghan politicians and war lords.US and Iran’s strategic rivalry escalated after trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018,claiming Iran has failed to curtails its missile programs. A confrontation of this nature jeopardizes any cooperation in Afghanistan .Undoubtedly Iran has interests in Afghanistan from refugee influx to counter-terrorism.Taking the domestic politics into context, Iran could have considerable influence over Shia Hazara community in Afghanistan which could facilitate the Intra-Afghan dialogue however this “ maximum pressure” strategy from trump could lead Tehran to retaliate against US forces in Afghanistan which would further deteriorate the security scene and prolong conflict, by setting up the stage for proxy war.

It was clear that the administration wanted to cultivate an environment for a full US withdrawal however optimism inside the pentagon was low. As the Taliban grew stronger, they started using remote areas to launch attacks on urban cities. They were able to capturing many strategically important areas such as Ghazni between Kabul and Kandahar although the US retrieved it in a bloody five day counterattack.

The US strategy indicated that the administration wanted to force the Taliban to the negotiating table in order to launch a full troop withdrawal. By this point, the regional actors had also realized that they could no longer depend on external forces to make headway in the Afghan peace process. Many of the stakeholders such as Russia, China, and Pakistan were on the same page for the first time. Therefore in order to protect their own interests, the US and NATO could no longer be allowed to function unilaterally in Afghanistan. Once the US found its exit strategy, it was only a matter of time before the region faced the consequences of the civil unrest inside Afghanistan. Consequently many of the regional formats such as the Moscow talks[14], Istanbul conference[15] and Murree talks[16] aimed to strengthen the Intra-Afghan dialogue which eventually paved the way for the Doha agreement. Finally a deal was struck between the Taliban and the US in February of 2020 which guaranteed a US withdrawal in exchange for reduced violence by the Taliban and elimination of all terror activities in Afghanistan.

Biden administration

During his initial months in office, the Biden administration did not hesitate to change major policy decisions undertaken by the previous administration however Biden himself was adamant on following through with the Doha agreement. This policy continuity stems from two important factors. Firstly Joe Biden, since 2008 has held an unwavering belief that the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable” and that the 20 year US presence in Afghanistan no longer had a purpose. Under the Obama administration, Biden quickly assumed the role of the “in house pessimist” regarding the war in Afghanistan. He persistently advised the administration against troop surges and urged them to limit US involvement to an overt counter terrorism mission. His conviction was that the US entered Afghanistan with a set of open-ended goals, many of which were unachievable. Notably he was not in favour of a full withdrawal at that point in history.

His scepticism accompanied him into office 2020,intact a full withdrawal was one of his campaign promises. The withdrawal is part of Biden’s wider foreign policy plan which aims to recalibrate US focus towards the upcoming challenges of the decade. Therefore in order to bring the American foreign policy out of the shadows of 9/11 and its response-Biden needed a “reset”. The administration rejected the strategy of maintaining a light military footprint and President Biden initially announced a full withdrawal by August 31st.This serves as an indication that Biden aims to approach future foreign policy arenas with diplomatic power rather than military. The administrations is no longer interested in bleeding resources and time into “nation building” of other countries and in the case of Afghanistan, Biden made it very clear that the sole US interest is to ensure that Afghanistan is never used to launch an attack on US soil.

Although Biden was warned by the pentagon about the chaos that will follow a US withdrawal, Biden was adamant about putting an end to this “forever war”.

The US withdrawal strategy displayed no coherence between the defence and state Departments, while the military initially opposed the withdrawal they quickly fell into line after Biden announcement. However the embassies started to shrink in size also simultaneously with the military troops, in fear of a Taliban takeover. However this closed all doors of diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban which could have protected the Afghan population for when the Taliban actually captured Kabul. While Biden chose to blame the administration on tying his hands on many occasion with his deal with Taliban, his own withdrawal strategy also faced a lot of sharp criticism. Predictably, chaos ensued in the country and the administration was forced to send 6,000 troops back into Afghanistan to secure evacuations. Upon international pressure primarily from the G-7countries, Biden also extended the deadline for the troop withdrawal to September 11 in 2021.

After the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, Biden assailed the Afghanistan government and its security forces for its failure, completely ignoring his own administration’s poor risk assessment before leaving Afghanistan. He deafened his evacuation strategy on many occasion. “The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens” Biden told ABC news. The hasty and mismanaged evacuation strategy was planned under the pretence that this was the best that they could do. Along with the administrations misplaced trust in the central government in Kabul, Biden also adamantly repeated- there was no right time to exit from Afghanistan.

















Mariam Asim
Mariam Asim
Undergraduate student studying Government and Public policy from National Defence University in Islamabad, Pakistan.