On Monday, August 16, 2021, hundreds of people crammed together on the runway of the Hamid Karzai International Airport as an American military jet departed Kabul. Mothers were seen throwing their babies over a barbed-wire fence at the airport compound for soldiers to catch. Some Afghans were photographed clinging to the wings of a C-17 jet, falling out of the sky soon afterward to their deaths. When the plane landed in the United States, human remains were found in the jet’s landing gear.
What could drive Afghanistan’s civilians to such desperation?
The recent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, ending a war that stretched for over two decades, may seem like the trigger that led to the intense chaos in the past week across the nation. But it is important to understand that this is not an isolated trigger; the jarring recent events in Afghanistan are a product of years of sociopolitical internal strife. Let’s walk through some of the major questions and events that have defined the conflict in Afghanistan.
International involvement in Afghanistan
Foreign intervention in Afghanistan did not begin with the American-led invasion in 2001. In fact, international superpowers have been conducting military operations in Afghanistan since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded the country with the intention of propping up a government favorable to themselves. Soon after the installation of the Soviet-backed head of state, Babrak Karmal, Afghanistan was transformed into a Cold War proxy battleground.
The rise of a guerrilla resistance group of Islamic fighters, known as the mujahideen, served as serious opposition to the Soviet-backed government. The United States and Saudi Arabia provided extensive support to the mujahideen in the form of funding, weaponry, and other resources. This policy was maintained by three American presidents. Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, a secular leader and herself familiar with the threat posed by Islamist extremism, warned President George H.W. Bush at the time about his pro-mujahideen policy: “You are creating a Frankenstein.” The proxy war lasted throughout the 1980s and stretched into the next decade, even after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. By 1992, mujahideen fighters had taken over the country and were fighting a civil war between themselves. This was when the Taliban was born.
Who are the Taliban?
Taliban means “student” in the Pashto language, and that is in fact who the group’s members were––students at various Afghan and Pakistani madrassas, religious seminaries often funded by Saudi Arabia. This fundamentalist Muslim group also grew out of sects within the armed mujahideen, with Taliban fighters taking control of the city of Kandahar in 1994. They captured Kabul in 1996, executing President Mohammad Najibullah and hanging his body from a lamppost for civilians to see.
Taliban rule of Afghanistan was defined by their incredibly brutal and oppressive interpretation of Islamic law, especially in relation to the rights of women and girls in the region. Under the Taliban regime, Afghan women were banned from leaving their house without wearing a burqa (a Muslim garment that covers the entire body, including the face) and had to have a male guardian present at all times when outside the home. Girls were banned from receiving an education, adult women were not permitted to work, and breaches of this so-called “moral code” could result in public floggings, amputations, or executions. The circumstances for Afghan civilians were nothing short of barbaric.
Why did the U.S. invade?
In 1996, Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist group al-Qaeda, arrived in Afghanistan. Himself a former mujahideen fighter, he was provided protection by the Taliban leadership. After al-Qaeda orchestrated the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, the U.S. legislature and executive branch quickly coalesced around an authorization of military force against those responsible for the attacks. Attempts were made to extract bin Laden from Afghanistan, but the Taliban refused to hand him over and did not give up their support for al Qaeda. Upon invading Afghanistan in November 2001, the United States was quickly successful in deposing the Taliban regime and thus ensured that Afghanistan was not a safe haven for al Qaeda terrorists. Osama bin Laden was assassinated in 2011, found by U.S. forces in his Pakistan hideout.
The mission quickly shifted from removing the terrorist national security threat to one of nation-building, although Taliban forces remained present in regions of Afghanistan throughout the 2010s, and new threats, such as an Afghan branch of ISIS, arose. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan did lead to several fundamental changes, both politically and socially. An Afghan government was democratically elected in 2004, led by President Hamid Karzai, and regular elections would follow. U.S. troops trained Afghan soldiers, the army soon growing to about 300,000 strong. Girls were permitted to return to being educated, with the percentage of school-attending female Afghan children peaking at 65% in 2011.
In 2016 I even happened to meet the Afghan girls’ football (soccer) team traveling to Europe for training––which would have been beyond a dream for young girls growing up under Taliban rule in the late 1990s. Back then, the primary purpose of Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium was not football matches, but stonings and mutilations. Girls were banned from playing sports.
As is the case with any military venture, the U.S. war in Afghanistan came with its own atrocities and downsides. U.S. soldiers were told to ignore rampant sexual abuse of young boys by Afghan warlords who were often put in charge of provinces and local governments. Civilian casualties regularly undermined the cause in Afghanistan, one of the most notable events resulting in civilian deaths being a U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz where 42 civilians were killed. As the years passed, with President Barack Obama promising to withdraw troops by 2011, then-Vice President Joe Biden promising to withdraw by 2014, then Obama moving the deadline to 2016, the American public began to question what the endgame was in Afghanistan.
Why did the U.S. withdraw?
Public opinion in the U.S. of the war had begun to decline after 2010, with bin Laden dead and al Qaeda severely weakened. Promises of withdrawal had begun under the Obama Administration and continued under the Trump Administration, which negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban in talks that lasted over 18 months. At one point, President Donald Trump even planned to invite Taliban leaders for a summit at his country retreat in Camp David on the anniversary of 9/11. The deal set a clear troop reduction timetable, with all U.S. troops scheduled to leave the nation by May 2021, and the release of over 5,000 Taliban prisoners was also agreed upon. By the time President Biden entered office, about 3,500 American troops remained in Afghanistan, and he chose to largely abide by the withdrawal deal negotiated by the Trump Administration, declaring it was “time to end America’s longest war.”
What is happening now?
All of Afghanistan’s major cities have fallen back into the hands of the Taliban in a matter of eleven days, the speed at which it occurred having been completely unanticipated by top military generals and U.S. intelligence. President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country, and nation-states such as China have already started to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Many question why a trained army of 300,000 Afghan soldiers was unable to hold off Taliban fighters for even a few weeks. Some, including President Biden, point to the quick fall as evidence that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was doomed from the start. Whatever the case, the consequences of the U.S. exit and Taliban control are real. A serious refugee crisis has already begun, with hundreds of thousands attempting to flee the cruel regime. Neighboring countries such as Pakistan and India already fear the security threat posed by having an extremist, terrorist government next door. The future seems bleak for young generations in Afghanistan, especially for young girls who, if history is any guide, will have to grow up in a nation without the ability to go to school, without the independence to dress as they please, without the freedom to even step outside their homes without the presence of a man. The situation in Afghanistan serves as a lesson to international powers that decisions about foreign intervention cannot be made with such little regard for the long-term consequences and moral obligations that come with war.