“”The American people have known that the war in Afghanistan was a lost cause for quite some time. That's why the Washington Post report this week on the so-called 'Afghanistan Papers', detailing how US officials 'deliberately mislead the public' on the war’s progress, is almost sort of unremarkable... At the same time, the Post report is rage inducing, not just because of the sheer stupidity of American leaders continuing to fight a war they knew they could not win, but also how their unwillingness to take responsibility for a failed policy caused so much death, destruction and heartbreak, particularly among those American families who have admirably dedicated their lives to serving their country, and the countless number of Afghan civilians trapped in a cycle of endless war they have nothing to do with.
|—Ben Armbruster, The Guardian, December 2019.|
| It never changes|
|A view to kill|
The Afghanistan War is the colloquial name for the military conflict formerly code-named Operation Enduring Freedom and now referred to by the awkward moniker Operation Freedom's Sentinel The stated goal of the war was/is to dismantle the Islamist Taliban government, which ruled Afghanistan, and by doing so weaken and destroy the Al-Qaeda terrorist group. Although the Taliban's military collapsed within three months, the United States and her allies are still embroiled in an ongoing counterinsurgency against not only the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but a hodgepodge of other terrorist and insurgent groups including DAESH.
This conflict, having stretched on for almost two decades, has infamously become the longest war in American history. The war shows no sign of ending soon, as President Obama broke his promise to withdraw from the region by 2016, and President Trump did a 180 on his campaign rhetoric and admitted that "a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists — including ISIS and Al Qaeda — would instantly fill." In other words, just about everybody wants to end the ground war in Afghanistan, but nobody seems to know how.
The ongoing struggle in Afghanistan is part of the Global War on Terror.
The Durand line
Borders based on ethnic or cultural divides don't necessarily mean peace, but cultural ties will trump colonial boundaries every time. This is why it was a problem when the British Empire drew the "Durand line" right through the middle of the Pashtun tribal lands to divide Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was done to serve colonial interests; the British wanted to keep Afghanistan as a buffer between itself and Russia, but it also didn't want Afghanistan to be large enough to pose a threat by itself. Hence the divide and conquer. Literally. The Brits spilled an unholy amount of blood and treasure in the region fighting a series of wars to make sure the Afghans stayed subservient.
Pashtuns, by the way, are a ferociously independent culture which to this day is primarily based on millennia-old tribal traditions. The unwritten Pashtun code of living is referred to as "Pashtunwali", and in short it means that a Pashtun friend will be loyal for life but a Pashtun enemy's grandkids will be coming after your grandkids. Part of Pashtunwali is the concept of "Nanawatai", which obligates Pashtuns to accept and protect all those who seek their refuge and hospitality no matter what the cost. It's not too hard to see how that tradition might cause a problem, if, for instance, a globally-wanted terrorist were to request asylum among the Pashtuns.
Fast forward to decolonization, and the Durand line became a flashpoint between the two nations, as Afghanistan unsurprisingly denounced the line, and Pakistan unsurprisingly told them to go fuck off. This had some even more disastrous consequences below the nation-state level. The Pashtun tribespeople have been effectively ignoring the border ever since its inception, and the rise of the Taliban and its popularity among many Pashtuns have allowed the whole area to become a lawless hub of terrorism, criminality, and good ol' fashioned drug-smuggling.
Following the outset of the War on Terror, Pakistan attempted to send troops into Waziristan (one of the Pashtun areas on their side of the border), to calm things down. This went about as well as you think it did, and Pakistan was forced to sign an agreement essentially conceding self-rule for the Pashtuns. The Taliban and Al Qaeda as a result have a nice, safe area in Pakistan to kick back and relax before wandering across the border whenever they feel ready to resume the fight. This is a big reason why it's been so hard to wipe out the insurgents; they have their own, far superior version of the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Soviet fiasco, American mistakes
“”For us, the idea was not to get involved more than necessary in the fight against the Russians, which was the business of the Americans, but rather to show our solidarity with our Islamist brothers.
|—Osama bin Laden on the war against the Soviets.|
In 1979, the Soviet Union launched an ill-advised invasion of Afghanistan in order to prop up their brutal puppet dictatorship. Seeing the chance to fuck over the Soviets for cheap, the United States, especially under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, made it a policy to fund and arm Islamist mujahedeen. During the struggle in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden settled in Pakistan to receive the influx of foreign volunteers to the region, who had been trained and armed by the United States and radicalized by Saudi Arabia. In this way, bin Laden himself had become the indirect beneficiary of the CIA's games. All told, the CIA spent over $20 goddamn billion to train and arm Afghanis.
Over 14,000 Soviet troops would die during the period of US aid to the mujahideen. After the Soviet withdrawal, the Afghan rebels fractured into brutal infighting, leading to the rise of the Taliban. The Soviet Union's brutal tactics had killed an estimated one million Afghanis, including about 90,000 mujahideen fighters.
During the period of chaos after the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan saw an opportunity to extend its influence over Afghanistan. This idea manifested as financial support for the Taliban; in other words, Pakistan hoped to turn the Taliban into a reliable (and safe) proxy by tugging on their purse-strings. The problem is, Pashtunwali and Islam both came into play, and the Taliban ended up being much less loyal than Pakistan hoped. During this time, the Taliban also committed many acts of mass murder and ethnic cleansing, particularly against Shia and ethnic minorities.
The Taliban eventually won out over the various other factions in Afghanistan, and they established a brutal theocratic government called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They immediately started engaging in some activities that were quite unpopular in the rest of the world, such as blowing up the Buddhas of Bamyan — 1,400-year-old Buddha statues — on the grounds that they were idols, and stoning adulterous couples. The regime was only ever recognized by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. The usual suspects, in other words.
Life under Taliban rule was essentially how one would imagine. The group began a reign of terror over the country, sending their fighters to roam about in swarms to beat women, burn schools, and destroy modern technology. Much of the Taliban's (and Al-Qaeda's) theology is based on the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb believed that Islam was a dead religion because a millennia-and-a-half of the Middle East's secular rulers (ranging from the Fatimids to the Ottomans to good ol' Saddam Hussein) had allowed their people to stray too far from the original teachings of Muhammad; only a strict and brutal return to absolutist Islamic fundamentalism could possibly redeem the modern world. His writings are essentially the psychopath's version of Letters from a Birmingham Jail; replace the love and lofty goals with murderous hateful intent. The Taliban took these lessons to heart: they were strict and very brutal.
9/11 happened, and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda was responsible. No, it wasn't an inside job, and no, the Mossad didn't do it either.
The US had known for some time that Bin Laden was based out of Afghanistan, enjoying hospitality and support from his Taliban hosts. The Taliban condemned the terrorist attack, saying "we want to tell the American children that Afghanistan feels your pain. We hope the courts find justice." These words, while pretty nice, rang kinda hollow considering that Bin Laden was hanging out in their backyard like a loser unemployed cousin. President Bush didn't buy the bullshit, and he delivered a public ultimatum to the Taliban: hand over Bin Laden and his cronies and close all Al-Qaeda training camps. The Taliban rejected the demand (remember Nanawatai?), saying they'd rather have a United Nations investigation and comply with those results. A wave of American airstrikes against Afghani targets convinced the Taliban to offer to hand over Bin Laden to a third-party country for trial and imprisonment, an offer Bush refused. Unfortunately, the Bush administration didn't have a military plan on how to apprehend Bin Laden; the rejection of the Taliban's offer effectively gave the terrorist a get-out-of-jail free card.
The original plan for the invasion called for 60,000 men and six months to prepare; Donald Rumsfeld rejected this plan, saying “I want men on the ground now!” The US had total air superiority from the beginning, but this advantage was reduced by the fact that the pre-industrial Afghanistan had few roads and no factories to bomb. The CIA covertly planted special forces units in Afghanistan to aid the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban resistance force. The US launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October with the backing of Tony Blair of the UK. They were quickly joined by a wide number of other nations.
Enduring Freedom was no full-offensive total war. Its strategy instead relied on paramilitary groups of US Special Forces armed with precision weapons who would work in concert with local Afghani freedom fighters, who would be the bulk of the manpower. There was also a heavy emphasis on airpower, because as the Vietnam War taught everyone, it's totally possible to win a war with aerial bombings alone. The irony here is that this strategy aimed to prevent a Vietnam-style quagmire by limiting the number of US troops on the ground to prevent a surge of anti-Americanism that the Taliban could use as a recruiting tool. It did the opposite, especially at the Battle of Tora Bora as seen below. Still, this indirect form of warfare was at least justified by logistical concerns: Afghanistan is a landlocked country.
The initial ground offensive, however, was a success, and the Taliban's leader Mohammad Omar surrendered the Taliban's primary city of Kandahar in November 2001, formally ending the Taliban's formal rule over Afghanistan. Around the same time, the US-aligned Northern Alliance captured Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul.
Bin Laden's great escape
“”Tora Bora was just a case of military incompetence. They had plenty of time, they had the people, they had the information - this was not a matter of miscommunication. This was a matter of general officers deciding not to do it because they didn't think it was their mission.
|—Richard Clarke, former White House counter-terrorism adviser.|
By mid-December of 2001, US-aligned forces and the US Air Force had Osama bin Laden and roughly a thousand Al-Qaeda fighters cornered in their hideout in the Tora Bora mountains. Al-Qaeda had been forced to rapidly abandon Kabul due to the Taliban's complete failure to defend the city. After US forces discovered bin Laden's whereabouts, they called in a huge number of airstrikes on the location over the next 56 hours in order to keep him pinned down.
Unfortunately, the US relied almost entirely on its Afghan allies to control the ground and prevent bin Laden's escape, effectively leaving the ground fight up to people who had no cold-weather or night-vision gear and who had little investment into whether or not bin Laden died. The Pentagon was reluctant to commit large numbers of US troops to Afghanistan. Other than this, the US had every advantage: Special Forces captured an Al-Qaeda radio, the bombing raids were even more effective than anticipated, and bin Laden himself seemed resigned to defeat. The Pentagon, however, decided not to risk sending any more US troops to the effort to kill or capture bin Laden, despite the fact that there were US Marines based not far away in Kandahar. It has been assessed that a block-and-sweep tactic utilizing between 2,000 and 3,000 US troops would likely have worked; this number was readily available among the Marines in Kandahar. In the end, however, bin Laden was able to escape along with his Al-Qaeda fighters across the border into Pakistan. Bin Laden would not be caught and killed by the US until a full decade later.
Following this failure, Donald Rumsfeld lied to the public, denying that the US knew for sure that bin Laden was in the area.
The current stalemate
Afghanistan's new government has to date shown itself rather incompetent in running the country, with the Taliban and other insurgents engaging in a guerrilla war from bases in the remote mountainous regions of neighboring Pakistan. After the end of George W. Bush's second term as president, Barack Obama inherited the war, and the United States and NATO made a major forward step when American forces killed Osama bin Laden in mid-2011. 
On December 20, 2010, vice president Joe Biden announced that the United States was "going to be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014." As is obvious now, he didn't actually mean that. Starting in 2015, troops stationed in Afghanistan will be reduced to around 10,000, and it was expected that only "a small residual force" will remain at the end of Obama's term. However, thanks to various developments in region, in early 2019, there were 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, some of whom had been born after the beginning of the war.
Other fiascos in the region
- Genghis Khan stopped by for a brief sojourn at one point (1219). And how did he end up winning against the Afghans, you ask? By mercilessly slaughtering every single individual in cities that refused to surrender.
- Freshly Islamized Arabians made a holy war to convert Afghanistan (7th century CE). It took them over 200 years to finish the job.
- Alexander the Great conquered this region in less than a decade, and there were Greek kingdoms in the region for centuries after Alexander's conquests.
The moral of the story
Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Also the only country to successfully control Afghanistan is India. India as of late has been bankrolling and carrying out training of the Afghan Army to act as a counter to the Taliban and their ally Pakistan. In reality the current war in Afghanistan is a proxy war between India and Pakistan.
- 5 harsh truths about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington Post
- This is What Winning Looks Like Vice News
- Rethink Afghanistan A group named after the film Rethink Afghanistan.
- The Afghanistan war is more than a $1 trillion mistake. It's a travesty. The Guardian.
- After 13 years, Operation Enduring Freedom concludes in Afghanistan National Guard.
- Amid Confusion, DoD Names New Mission 'Operation Freedom's Sentinel' Military.com.
- Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy Congressional Research Service. December 13, 2017.
- Afghanistan is by far America's longest war Axios. Haley Britzky. Oct 8, 2018
- U.S. Troops to Leave Afghanistan by End of 2016 New York Times. May 27, 2014.
- Trump, who once backed withdrawal from Afghanistan, tries to sell the nation on deeper involvement LA Times. AUG 21, 2017
- The Durand Line National Geographic.
- See the Wikipedia article on The Great Game.
- Anglo-Afghan Wars Britannica
- Pashtunwali Afghanistan Language and Culture Program.
- See the Wikipedia article on Nanawatai.
- Why the Durand Line Matters The Diplomat
- Pashtun Spring: Time to redraw the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan The Hill.
- See the Wikipedia article on Waziristan Accord.
- Al Qaeda Finds Its Center of Gravity The New York Times. Sep 10, 2006
- Profile: Osama bin Laden Al Jazeera
- The United States and the Mujahideen
- "Cold War (1945-1991): External Course". The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History. Oxford University Press. 8 January 2013. p. 219. ISBN 0199759251.
- What Was Operation Cyclone?
- Saudi Arabia’s Shadow War Foreign Policy
- The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979 - 1989 The Atlantic
- Amin Saikal. Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (2006 1st ed.). I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., London New York. p. 352. ISBN 1-85043-437-9.
- Taliban massacres outlined for UN Chicago Tribune. Oct 12, 2001.
- Explosions Tear at Afghan Buddha Statues, National Geographic
- Brutal video of girl stoned to death with her lover by the Taliban
- Taliban Britannica
- Tales of the Taliban in Their Own Words Huffington Post 06/26/2010.
- Is this the man who inspired Bin Laden? The Guardian.
- A Lesson In Hate Smithsonian Magazine.
- 911 Commission 2004, p. 66.
- Taliban diplomat condemns attacks CNN. September 12, 2001.
- Bush delivers ultimatum CNN. September 21, 2001.
- Taliban defy Bush ultimatum The Guardian. September 21, 2001
- Bush rejects Taliban offer to surrender bin Laden The Independent. 15 October 2001
- U.S. Refusal of 2001 Taliban Offer Gave bin Laden a Free Pass
- 21st Century Horse Soldiers – Special Operations Forces and Operation Enduring Freedom Defense Media Network
- Special forces and horses Armed Forces Journal
- First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan CIA. Review. J. Daniel Moore
- It's time for war, Bush and Blair tell Taliban The Guardian. Sun 7 Oct 2001
- See the Wikipedia article on Participants in Operation Enduring Freedom.
- Operation Enduring Freedom Rand Corporation.
- [Collapse of the Taliban] The Guardian.
- The Rise and Fall of the Taliban
- Bin Laden's Tora Bora escape, just months after 9/11 BBC
- How Al Qaeda Escaped Afghanistan and Lived to Fight Another Day The Daily Beast 03.16.14.
- Remembering the battle of Tora Bora in 2001 PRI
- We Really Did Have a Chance at Bin Laden Brookings Institute
- How Osama bin Laden Escaped Foreign Policy
- Death of Osama bin Laden Fast Facts CNN
- Did Military Misstep Let Bin Laden Escape? Brookings Institute.
- Jihadi theorist Abu Musab al-Suri, a member of al-Qaeda's inner council, bemoaning the losses suffered by al Qaeda rightly discerned that "the American attack on Afghanistan was not really aimed at capturing or killing bin Laden; its true goal was to sweep away the Taliban and eliminate the rule of Islamic law." The Master Plan: For the new theorists of jihad, Al Qaeda is just the beginning. Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, September 11, 2006.
- US to keep 9,800 Afghanistan troops after 2014, BBC
- Two US Service Members Killed in Afghanistan, New York Times
- It's Time for US Troops to Leave Afghanistan, The Atlantic
- See the Wikipedia article on Genghis Khan.