An overview of the US presence in Afghanistan, and what’s happening now
By Benjamin Noel
August 30, 2021 marked the last day of American military presence in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush signed a Joint Resolution “to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States” one week after the September 11 attacks in 2001. The subjects of this resolution encompassed not only Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but any nation or government who “he [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” This document gave President Bush the grounds to invade Afghanistan, set up the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and conduct surveillance on US citizens without court orders (Council on Foreign Relations).
In the early days of the occupation, the US mainly held bombing runs, while anti-Taliban Afghan Pashtuns fought the Taliban on the ground. And after two years of combat, and establishing a government awaiting proper democratic elections, the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield claimed that “major combat” had ended in the region (CFR). Just prior to this, the US began to shift its focus to Saddam’s Iraq as a potential terror threat.
Over 15 years after establishing military presence in both these countries, the far-too-broad mission of reconstructing democratically-elected governments, eliminating terror threats, and stabilizing the regions had not been sufficiently met, not for lack of trying. The unification of Afghanistan is a near-impossible feat. Given its mountainous terrain, even under a democratically elected President, Kabul only had so much reach, as remote areas were still under regional rule or even Taliban rule. Additionally, the training of the Afghan National Army was a core piece of the mission, but opioid addictions and better pay from the Taliban caused ANA soldiers to get stoned mid-battle, and even siphon off their own supplies to sell to the enemy. One of the only successes of the US training of Afghans was the Afghan Commando unit, a small well-trained and well-equipped specialized force that saw combat alongside US Special Operations Forces. However, the cost of American armed forces’ lives, allied Afghan fighters, and Afghan civilians started to substantially outweigh the positive change being introduced into the countries.
Obama pulled out a significant amount of troops in 2014, leaving around 9,000 to perform operations to quell a Taliban resurgence. Trump also vowed to end America’s “forever wars,” and in 2019, intra-Afghan peace talks made significant progress while American numbers were continuing to decrease in Afghanistan. However, these talks came to a stalemate after continued Taliban attacks on both US and Afghan forces. Then-Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani refused to participate in peace talks with the Taliban due to continued attacks on Afghan security forces.
In April this year, President Joseph Biden declared to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. President Biden stated that this move will be made regardless of the state of Afghan-Taliban peace talks. Biden’s bold move had been talked about since the Obama administration, and with the state in no better condition than before, the book was to be closed on this “forever war.” Three weeks before the last troops were to be pulled out, the Taliban overtook province after province, facing little to no resistance, and captured the capital of Kabul while top government officials fled.
Now Afghanistan has returned to its pre-American invasion state, the Taliban controls the majority of the government. Journalists, activists, especially women who vocally spoke out against Sharia law. But new to the mix of endangered demographics are translators and US-military aides who fought alongside American forces against the Taliban. These brave Afghans were promised citizenship in exchange for their service, but many found themselves stranded in Kabul, with no guarantee of getting out.
In regards to the number of translators that have been successfully evacuated, “the administration has evacuated less than one percent of the more than 80,000 Afghans who have sought U.S. visas” (Yahoo). This failure comes as a result of no significant military presence in the more remote areas of Afghanistan. Some US soldiers, including Green Beret Tim Kennedy, have gone into Afghanistan as private citizens to help evacuation efforts, ensuring the safety of as many at-risk people as possible (Stars and Stripes).
In a stunning turn of diplomacy, the Taliban held a perimeter around the airport, allowing evacuation flights to resume freely until the US pull-out deadline of August 31. The terror attack in the Kabul airport that killed 13 American service members and over 150 Afghan civilians was executed at the hands of ISIS-K (the eastern-Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State) (USA Today). ISIS-K seems to be more extreme in their Islamist views, and with a force over 2,000 strong, will pose a significant threat to the Taliban government.
As far as America’s relationship with Afghanistan, diplomatic talks are being held to get the last 300 Americans still stuck in remote areas of the country back home. The US significantly gutted al-Qaeda and affiliated terror groups, capturing and killing leaders, as well as the planners of the 9/11 attacks. However, the American attempt at nation-building in a region not hospitable for centralized government greatly failed. The US left the country as it found it, a land formed of different ethnic tribes, some of whom pose a danger to the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of others.
Secretary of state Anthony Blinken said, "The military mission is over and the diplomatic mission has begun."
Ryan Ford '23,