Soon after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, Bush was quick to put the blame on Osama Bin Laden. Bush made Afghanistan, especially the Taliban, a focus of attack, as Bin Laden was hosted by the Taliban and refused to release him due to their traditional customs of hospitality. Consequently, the Bush administration threatened all out war with the Taliban. When the Taliban asked for evidence of Bin Laden being involved in the attack, Bush’s reply was simply: “we do not negotiate with terrorists”.
It wasn’t long however until the media would start asking for the same evidence, and that’s where the multiple excuses came in. The Bush administration put together random reasons such as stopping the Opium trade that the Taliban relied upon, human rights, and girls’ education as bizarre justifications for what was primarily spun as a war of revenge.
And it left more people cynical and bemused when opium production shot up under the US occupation. Many were accused of having a hand in the drug trade in the same way the CIA was involved in profiting from the domestic “War on Drugs” impacting largely Afro-American communities.
The US and its allies were quick to drive the Taliban out of major cities, with the majority fleeing to northern Pakistan or the rural mountainous regions, where sanctuaries would be formed. To sustain their power, the Coalition forces built military bases, however they failed to capture the mass majority of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants and it’s these conditions that set the foundations of what became a bloody war that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives.
It was from here that the displaced Taliban fighters began to distribute pamphlets to locals, calling for people to be drafted in to fight the occupiers, and swiftly began taking on the Coalition forces with guerrilla war tactics. Over time, the frequency of these attacks grew, as did the number of people who joined them from local tribes. In 2003, Taliban fighters began building up forces in the district of Dai Chopan in Zabul Province. The Taliban decided to make a stand there by allocating 1,000 fighters in the region focused on using the region as a stronghold.
Civilian casualties, torture, and detentions inflicted by Coalition forces proved to be an effective recruitment tool for the Taliban. By 2007, in south Afghanistan alone, it is reported that the Taliban had at least 10,000 fighters at any one time and despite military operations by the Coalition forces, the Taliban was effective in converting those losses into propaganda wins. This also attracted fighters from across the world who had more specialist skills such as video production and bomb-making.
Despite the Taliban suffering over 67,000 deaths since the start of the war, their insurgency never decreased.
It was this cycle that kept the Taliban alive and kicking, and the US forces in Afghanistan to save face.
Whilst the Coalition sustained 22,773 wounded troops, a smaller number of 4,030 are known to have been killed. There was a similar pattern with military private contractors, such as Blackwater, hired to fight the war with over 15,000 wounded and just under 1,776 reported to have been killed. The biggest casualties of the Taliban Insurgency were the Afghan Security Forces, sustaining a death toll of around 7,000 per year.
This is not even accounting for civilian deaths of around 106,000. Overall, it was the Afghanis themselves who were taking the heaviest toll of the US led war, with an estimated 238,500 deaths over the course of the war.
Afghanistan lived up to its reputation as the graveyard of empires, but it did not come without heavy loss to human life.
War crimes were committed on both sides. Civilians were regularly caught in the warfare of both Coalition and Taliban-led forces. Both received condemnation by the international community, however the institutional nature of the Coalition forces meant they were accused of cover-ups and systematic torture. The latter, just like in Iraq, gave rise to institutionalising torture in partnership with regimes across the world, de-stabilising them even further.
Who Gains What From The New Deal?
The historic new peace deal between the US and the Taliban made headlines not only because of its historic relevance but because of the wary confusion as to whether this new deal would actually deliver the results it promised.
The US gained the condition that Afghan soil will not be used for the purpose of attacking any US target. They also gained the condition that the Taliban must go into negotiations with the current Afghan government, effectively being made to recognise a body set up by the US. As to whether those negotiations will be fruitful is another matter entirely.
The Taliban secures the most central condition, that the US and Coalition forces will completely leave Afghanistan. They also secured the condition that the US cannot interfere with future intra-Afghanistan negotiations. Doing so would effectively break the treaty.
It is a general framework that enables some kind of future for a still fractured country, but is very loose on how the parties go forward. However, despite many believing that the Taliban has secured victory against the biggest military might in the world, it does give enough room for the US to save face to their own people domestically as well.
Was It All Worth It?
As early as 2001, Hamid Karzai was appointed to head the Afghan Interim Administration in charge of becoming a form of proto-government. Karzai was later elected president in 2004, but always had an uneasy relationship with the wider Afghan population, primarily because of his origins. The British Empire had also tried a similar tactic, only for their appointed leader to be assassinated by his people.
So what did the conflict achieve? Very little.
The Taliban were not crushed as the US had tried so hard to achieve; they are still major stakeholders in the country. Since the war, they have been diversifying by calling for economic support from the UAE and Bahrain. Afghani intelligence also claim that the Pakistani intelligence, ISI, have been major backers of the Taliban despite Pakistani leadership supporting the US.
Al Qaeda was not really defeated either. In fact, they simply morphed into many different outfits around the world. Bringing democracy perhaps? Many Afghani democrats feel cheated and deceived by the US invasion overall.
One notable politician, Malali Joya, famously said:
The US and NATO—under the banner of women’s rights, human rights, and democracy—occupied my country and pushed us from the frying pan into the fire. Eight years is enough to know better about the corrupt, mafia system of President Hamid Karzai. My people are crushed between two powerful enemies. From the sky, occupation forces bomb and kill civilians … and on the ground, the Taliban and warlords continue their crimes. It is better that they leave my country; my people are that fed up. Occupation will never bring liberation, and it is impossible to bring democracy by war.”
How about stability? Not really.
Afghanistan’s political leadership does not hold centralised authority over the same nation. There is significant and multiple power vacuums in the country, not just because of Taliban influence, but also due to lack of trust and shared values with the government and the people on the ground.
Neighbouring nations are seeking to take advantage of those power vacuums. Iran and Russia, emboldened by their partnership in Syria, have also turned their sights to the US presence in Afghanistan. There is still no indication of what exactly will cease now that the US has officially made agreements to leave.
China also has interests in Afghanistan. Chiefly for their Belt and Road initiative, this has led to not only mining contracts for China but also a building of the military base Badakshan, aimed at bolstering the current Afghan government in counter-terrorism.
So there is no real security that Afghanistan will not be used to threaten the US in the future. Coupled with a severe lack of public appetite for war in this region, would US retaliation by any worse than the last 20 years?
Overall, the Afghan government, unable to command centralised authority, is still dependent on outside support and that also means that economic and social benefits of any change would be hard to implement in ways that will directly impact the people on the ground. The Taliban still control the majority of what is vastly still a rural country. With this still in place, the Taliban and others still have ample means to sustain their influence in the country. How both parties will share power still remains completely obscure.