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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

EXPLAINER: What happened to Afghanistan? Specter of Taliban Returns & the 20-year US’ War on Terror

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After 20 years of war and spending an estimated $2.2 trillion, the United States brings its troops back home ending the longest war it has ever fought. The world also saw how swift the Taliban recaptured the capital city of Kabul from the US-backed Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani.

The world has been shattered with the depressing images and videos of Afghans rushing to the Kabul airport trying to escape a new reality in Afghanistan. Many have been trying to escape the Taliban for fear of reprisals for helping the United States as well as the return of draconian policies like denying Afghan women and girls of their rights to education.

While sympathies have been pouring across the world, many people hold an incomplete image of the civil war in Afghanistan, limiting themselves to the grim aftermath of the withdrawal of the US troops in the country. Here is a guide to understanding the Afghan civil war.

The Origin of the Taliban

The Taliban is a Deobandi islamist religious-political movement and military organization. Their origin can be traced back to their participation in driving the invasive Soviet forces away from Afghanistan.[1] After successfully obliterating the Russian invasion and stripping the communist ideology off the government structure, the Taliban showed no willingness to acquire political power until the country slipped into a political chaos.

The winning coalition against the Soviet forces was composed of different factions in Afghanistan. After their success, the administration of the country was left in their hand. The coalition agreed to rotate the executive power among factions every two years, but such agreement was not observed. Burhanuddin Rabbani refused to transfer his power to his supposed successor after his two-year term expired,[2] endangering political instability in the country anew.

With the coalition composed of factions unable to control the warring factions, armed hostility worsened disrupting the normal flow of life in the country. Rocket attacks bombarding Kabul, the capital city, made Afghanistan reliant on the delivery of food from international organizations. The problem was exacerbated with different militia leaders and warlords oppressively forcing trucks engaged in cross-border trading to pay road taxes and transit fees while promoting extortion in most other areas.[3]

The inability of the coalition to smoothly transition into a better government because of internal power struggles led to the reappearance of the Taliban in the war-torn country. The Taliban quelled the turmoil by dealing with the militia groups and warlord in Afghanistan using a simple and peaceful strategy.[4] The Taliban would send a delegation composed of clerics to persuade the groups to surrender their arms while promoting the implementation of the Islamic law. In cases where peaceful talks failed to disarm the groups, the Taliban would take up arms to subdue the militias and warlords. With the projection of Taliban as neutral, most of their peaceful attempts succeeded.   

The adoption of this approach worked well, allowing the Taliban to speedily take control of the country. Of the areas seized by the “neutral” force, the most notable was the Taliban’s success in controlling the three largest Afghan cities: Herat in 1995, Kabul in 1996, and Mazar Sharif in 1997.[5] This success limited the control of the opposition, the Northern Alliance, to only 10% of Afghanistan by 1997. Although the opposition never ceased to exist, the beginning of the Taliban control was marked with relative stability and security founded purely on fundamentalism.

The War on Terror after 9/11

The Northern Alliance continued to challenge the Taliban using the support and resources it was receiving from other countries despite the public pledge of the Six-Plus-Two contact group – composed of Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Russia, and the United States – not to render any form of assistance to any of the two opposing sides. Induced by their vested interests, some of these countries discreetly helped the opposition topple the Taliban-led government.

The United States of America launched Operation enduring Freedom in October 7, 2001 as part of George W. Bush’s war against terror after the 9/11 attacks took place in the US killing 2,750 Americans believed to be led al-Qaeda, planned by Osama bin Laden who is suspected to be hiding and commanding his operation in Afghanistan.

Photo taken from Britannica

Commuter planes were hijacked and piloted by Al-Qaeda members into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. The fourth aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers, learned of the other attacks, tried to take control of their plane.[6]

Fuming after the deadly terror attacks, the United States launched a global war on terror. Its attention was directed to Afghanistan for serving as a haven for the members of al-Qaeda. Harboring the terrorist group, the Taliban government was asked by the United States to hand over Osama Bin Laden and his associates. However, the government did not respond favorably to the demands of the western power, making Afghanistan the cockpit of armed engagements.  

The United States, together with Britain, bombarded the country weeks after the 9/11 incident.[7] These offensive attacks were paired with the efforts of the United States to render logistical support to the Northern Alliance. With the military prowess of the western force and the mobilization of the domestic opposition, the Taliban government deteriorated quickly. On December 7, the government was forced to surrender its last military foothold in the country.

After the collapse of the Taliban government, undertakings were pushed forward to establish a new government backed by the United States. Anti-Taliban groups supplanted the Taliban government with an interim administration through the guidance of the international community.[8] In January 2004, a new constitution was put in place steered primarily by the democratic principles. Elections in December of the same year were held with women finally allowed to cast their votes – a total departure from the Taliban regime.

The Continuous Resistance of the Taliban

The U.S.-led war against the Taliban only annihilated the political foothold of the group in the country. The success of replacing the Taliban with a new set of democratically elected leaders did not translate into the utter destruction of the group. The Talibans retreated in the periphery of Afghanistan and have allowed them not only to survive, but also to continue its resistance against the new Afghan regime.

With an estimated annual export value of $1.5-$3bn,[9] Afghanistan is the largest supplier of opium in the world – specifically accounting for 84% of the total global opium production. Much of the profits go to the Taliban as the group control areas where most of the poppy growing takes place. This hefty amount of revenues sourced from the opium production is further boosted by the mining operations, extortions, imposition of taxes, and the covert funding of external forces.

Photo taken from The Washington Post

These sources of revenue have been strengthening the ability of the Taliban to carry out their insurgency operations against the Afghan government.  In fact, in 2009, the insurgency efforts of the Taliban substantially increased that the United States sounded the alarm to undertake programs to fight off the increasing presence of the insurgent group.[10] US augmented the presence of the American troops in the country and introduced programs to empower the military capability of the Afghan government to defend itself.

The Cost of the War and the Withdrawal of the United States

Albeit the intensified efforts of the global network spearheaded by the United States, the Taliban continued to destabilize the Afghan government. The group made its presence felt by undertaking bloody suicide attacks, detonating bombs, disturbing the peaceful conduct of elections, and the likes. With the group’s unimpeded flow of resources and the domestic anomalies in Afghan government institutions, the insurgents were able to remain a threat to the efforts of the United States and NATO.

The ability of the Taliban to debilitate the foundations of the Afghan government signified that the war would extend beyond the earlier timetable set by the NATO member states hoping that by 2008, “a more stable political structure” would be put in place and the transfer of control to the Afghan government would successfully materialize. This goal, however, was not reached as the hostility persisted. The NATO troops stayed in the Arab country until 2014, while the US troops extended its stay to build up the military capacity of the Afghan government.

The inevitability of the armed engagements between the US-led coalition and the Taliban insurgents led to bloodshed. Since the war started, the hostile environment has never been successfully pacified. It is estimated that the death toll induced by the 20-year war is around 173,500: 2,500 U.S. soldiers, nearly 4,000 American civilian contractors, 69,000 Afghan military police, 47,000 civilians, and 51,000 opposition fighters.[11]

These grim numbers are the byproducts of the expenses poured into the war by both ends. The war on terror efforts of the United States required the allocation of an astronomical amount of resources to carry out its direct involvement as well as its capacity-building programs for the military force of the Afghan government. The United States sustained its expensive undertaking using borrowed money with an increasing interest rate. The American government spent $300 million US dollars every day for 20 years (more than $2 trillion in total). Despite these investments, a perceptible progress remained elusive.  

The bloodshed, the expensive requirement of the protracted war, and the failure of the undertaken efforts to birth peace into the war-torn country formed the amalgamation of frustrations of the Americans. Aware that they would shoulder the responsibility of paying the price for their government’s war engagements, Americans mounted criticisms and objections – to some extent carrying nationalistic sentiments – against the continuous stay of the American troops in Afghanistan.

Faced with domestic pressures, the United States finally agreed to put an end to the presence of all foreign forces in Afghanistan, including the American troops, through an agreement with the Taliban signed on the 29th of February, 2020 by the Trump administration.  The agreement enshrines the drawdown of the foreign forces in exchange of the commitment of the Taliban to preventing terrorist activities from taking place in the country. Despite the change in leadership, the American government assures that it will keep its end of the bargain as President Joe Biden announces the completion of the total withdrawal on the 11th of September, 2021 – a later date than the original agreement.

The Return of the Taliban

With the weakening military power of the Afghan government, the Taliban managed to build their momentum in finding their way back to the political seat of power in the country. On August 15, 2021, the insurgents reclaimed Kabul, the capital city, and took over the presidential palace only hours after the Afghan President Ghani had left the country.  A transition to the Taliban leadership is now underway.[12]

Changes in Afghanistan have escalated quickly. The basic human rights of women are now again at peril. Before the invasion of the United States in Afghanistan, the Arab country had been operating based on the Taliban’s strict subscription to the Islamic law.[13] Under the pretext of protecting the dignity of women, the Taliban government barred women from attending their schooling and were restricted to go outdoors without being accompanied by at least one of their male relatives. Basically, under the Taliban regime, women were programmed to be subservient to a patriarchal framework of governance.

The leaders of the Taliban group assured those who worked with the US troops of a blanket immunity and the Afghan women of the preservation of their rights. The Taliban made an announcement that the government would apply amnesty across the country and urged women to be part of an “inclusive Islamic government.”

This promise, however, runs counter to the recent happenings in Afghanistan. The insurgents were reported to have fired at the demonstrators waving the Afghan flag on the country’s Independence Day[14] and to have gunned down individuals for previously working with the Americans. Women, on the other hand, are skeptical over the sweet promise of the Taliban as the group put an emphasis on safeguarding the rights of women within the bounds of the Islamic law. The absence of a concrete and comprehensive government structure definitely provides room for the reintroduction of the strict interpretation of the Islamic law by the Taliban.


[1] N. Ghufran (n.d.). “THE TALIBAN AND THE CIVIL WAR ENTANGLEMENT IN AFGHANISTAN.” Retrieved from https://library.fes.de/libalt/journals/swetsfulltext/14218792.PDF

[2] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (n.d.). “Afghanistan.” Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/place/Afghanistan/Civil-war-mujahideen-Taliban-phase-1992-2001#ref727635

[3] Ibid.

[4] N. Ghufran (n.d.). “THE TALIBAN AND THE CIVIL WAR ENTANGLEMENT IN AFGHANISTAN.” Retrieved from https://library.fes.de/libalt/journals/swetsfulltext/14218792.PDF

[5] N. Ghufran (n.d.). “THE TALIBAN AND THE CIVIL WAR ENTANGLEMENT IN AFGHANISTAN.” Retrieved from https://library.fes.de/libalt/journals/swetsfulltext/14218792.PDF

[6] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (n.d.). “SEPTEMBER 11 ATTACKS.” Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/event/September-11-attacks/The-attacks

[7] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (ndf.). “Afghanistan.” Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/place/Afghanistan/Civil-war-mujahideen-Taliban-phase-1992-2001#ref727635

[8] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (n.d.). “Afghanistan.” Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/place/Afghanistan/Civil-war-mujahideen-Taliban-phase-1992-2001#ref727635

[9] D. Azami (2018). “Afghanistan: How does the Taliban make money?” BBC News. Retrieved from: Afghanistan: How does the Taliban make money? – BBC News

[10] [10] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (ndf.). “Afghanistan.” Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/place/Afghanistan/Civil-war-mujahideen-Taliban-phase-1992-2001#ref727635

[11] C. Helman (2021) and H. Tucker (2021). “The War In Afghanistan Cost America $300 Million Per Day For 20 Years, With Big Bills Yet To Come.” Forbes. Retrieved from: The War In Afghanistan Cost America $300 Million Per Day For 20 Years, With Big Bills Yet To Come (forbes.com)

[12] “The US War in Afghanistan.” cfr. Retrieved from: The U.S. War in Afghanistan | Council on Foreign Relations (cfr.org)

[13] N. Ghufran (ndf.). “THE TALIBAN AND THE CIVIL WAR ENTANGLEMENT IN AFGHANISTAN.” Retrieved from https://library.fes.de/libalt/journals/swetsfulltext/14218792.PDF

[14] “Two reported killed as Taliban fire on crowds protesting takeover.” Al Jazeera. Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/8/19/afghan-protests-spread-to-kabul-in-early-challenge-to-taliban

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