Afghanistan has been ravaged by war for most of the 21st century: it remains the longest war the United States has ever fought. Two decades of unstable politics, lack of infrastructure, human rights abuses and a refugee crisis have made life in Afghanistan precarious and volatile. Even when the state of war is over, it will take decades for meaningful recovery to happen. But how did this once cultured, prosperous nation get torn apart by war?
Why did the war begin?
In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, supposedly to stabilise the new socialist government which had been put in place following a coup. Unsurprisingly, many Afghans were deeply unhappy at this foreign interference, and rebellions broke out. The United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia all helped these rebels by providing them with arms to fight the Soviets with.
The Taliban emerged in the aftermath of Soviet invasion. Many welcomed their appearance in the 1990s: the years of corruption, fighting and foreign influence had taken their toll on the population. However, whilst there were initial positives to the arrival of the Taliban, the regime quickly became notorious for its brutal rule. They adhered to a strict form of Islam and enforced Sharia law: this involved a severe curtailment of women’s rights, forcing men to grow beards and trying to reduce ‘Western influence’ in areas they controlled by banning TV, cinema and music. They also introduced a shocking system of violent punishments for those who violated the Taliban’s rules, including public executions, lynchings, death by stoning and amputations.
By 1998, the Taliban aided by US-supplied weapons, controlled around 90% of Afghanistan. They also had a stronghold in Pakistan: many believe the founding members of the Taliban were education in Pakistan’s religious schools.
Toppling the Taliban (2001-2)
On 11 September 2001, four US jetliners were hijacked by members of al-Qaeda who had trained in Afghanistan, and who had been harboured by the Taliban regime. 3 of the hijacks successfully crashed planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon respectively, killing nearly 3000 people and causing seismic shock waves around the world.
Nations around the world – including Afghanistan, which had offered shelter to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda – condemned the devastating attack. The US President, George W. Bush, announced a so-called ‘War on Terror’ and demanded that the Taliban leader deliver members of al-Qaeda to the United States.
When this request was refused, the United States, by this point allied with the British, began to make plans to go to war. Their strategy was effectively to give support, arms and training to anti-Taliban movements within Afghanistan, with the aim of overthrowing the Taliban – partly in a pro-democracy move, and partly to achieve their own aims. This was achieved within a few months: by early December 2001, the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar had fallen.
However, despite extensive efforts to locate bin Laden, it became clear that it would not be easy to capture him. By December 2001, it seemed he had escaped into the mountains of Pakistan, aided by some of the forces that had supposedly been allied with the United States.
Occupation and rebuilding (2002-9)
Following the removal of the Taliban from power, international forces began focusing on nation-building efforts. A coalition of US and Afghan troops continued to fight over Taliban attacks, whilst a new constitution was drawn up, and the first democratic elections were held in October 2004.
However, despite George Bush‘s promise for massive financial investment in and assistance for Afghanistan, most of the money failed to appear. Instead, it was appropriated by the US Congress, where it went towards the training and equipping of Afghan security forces and militia.
Whilst this was useful, it did nothing to equip Afghanistan with basic infrastructure for education, healthcare and agriculture. A lack of understanding of Afghan culture – particularly in rural areas – also contributed to difficulties in investment and infrastructure.
In 2006, troops were deployed in Helmand province for the first time. Helmand was a Taliban stronghold and one of the centres of opium production in Afghanistan, meaning British and US forces were particularly keen to take control of the area. Fighting was prolonged and remains ongoing – as the casualties mounted, there was increasing pressure on the British and US governments to begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, with public opinion gradually turning against the war.
A quiet surge (2009-14)
In 2009, the newly elected President Obama reaffirmed US commitments in Afghanistan, sending over 30,000 extra troops, bolstering the total numbers of US soldiers there to over 100,000. Theoretically, they were training the Afghan army and police force, as well as helping to keep the peace and bolster civilian development and infrastructure projects. Victories such as the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan (2011) helped keep US public opinion on side.
Despite this extra force, elections proved tainted by fraud, violence and disruption by the Taliban, civilian deaths mounted, and assassinations and bombings of senior figures and politically sensitive locations continued. Funds continued to be promised by Western powers on the condition that the Afghan government took steps to combat corruption and sue for peace with Pakistan.
By 2014, NATO forces had given command of military and security operations to Afghan forces, and both Britain and the United States officially ended combat operations in Afghanistan. This move towards withdrawal did little to soothe the situation on the ground: violence continued to grow, women’s rights continued to be violated and civilian deaths remained high.
The Taliban return (2014-today)
Whilst the Taliban had been forced from power and lost most of their major footholds in the country, they were far from gone. As NATO forces prepared to withdraw, the Taliban began to re-emerge, leading the US and NATO to maintain their presence in the country rather than seriously reduce it as they had originally intended. Violence erupted across the country, with parliamentary buildings in Kabul being a particular focus of attack.
In 2020, the United States signed a peace treaty with the Taliban, aiming to bring peace to Afghanistan. Part of the deal was that Afghanistan would ensure that no terrorists, or potential terrorists would be harboured: the Taliban swore that they simply wanted an Islamic government within their own country and would not pose a threat to other nations.
Millions of Afghans have suffered and continue to do so under the Taliban and the severe restrictions of Sharia law. Many also believe that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are virtually inseparable. It’s thought that in addition to the 78,000 civilians killed in the past 20 years, over 5 million Afghans have been displaced, either within their own country or having fled as refugees.
In April 2021, the new US president Joe Biden committed to removing all but ‘essential’ US troops from Afghanistan by September 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This left a vulnerable Western-backed Afghan government open to potential collapse, as well as the prospect of a humanitarian crisis should the Taliban resurge. However with the American public supporting the decision, the US continued to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
Within 6 weeks, the Taliban had made a lightning resurgence, capturing major Afghan cities, including, in August 2021, Kabul. The Taliban promptly declared the war ‘over’ with foreign powers having evacuated the country. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen.