The history of the war on terror from a non-historian
We have spent our entire lives following the war in Afghanistan. The war is literally older than I am. I wasn’t born till the summer of 02’. With righteousness in our hearts and a belly full of vengeance, the war against terror began and is now officially over.
Where did it all go wrong? How did we end here, having lost the war?
I believe to understand the gravity of the situation we have to know our history. The first thing to note, the American government funded what would become the Taliban. The Saur Revolution in 1978 was ultimately the result of foreign governments meddling in what was a modernizing Afghanistan.
Two different ideologies were fighting for the country that left Marxist-Leninist beliefs and on the other side the Islamic beliefs. For more detailed information about the Saurs Revolution, you can check out adst.org.
When the Marxist style of government took over they began suppressing other groups including the Islamists. To destabilize the communist government, America began funneling money to the mujahideen, fundamentalist Islamists. How American, don’t you know, nothing solves the problem like through money at it.
At first, it was only a little bit of money, then when the assassination of Nur Mohammad Taraki took place, a new more oppressive leader took place and the Soviets feared the Americans would capitalize on the growing instability in the region. So the Soviets invaded in 1979.
As a result, the Americans began giving even more money to the mujahedeen. The guerilla-style warfare of the fighters exhausted the Soviets and global pressure brought them to the negotiating table in 1989 as the Russians withdrew. Nothing too traumatic, just 10 years of warfare.
Where did the Soviets go wrong?
Why did they lose? One thing you have got to understand about Afghanistan is geography. It consists mostly of deserts and mountains. That means that many of the people who live rurally are living in valleys and are nomadic herders making it easy for them to form factions and difficult to form a strong central government.
Within a few years, the governments collapsed again as mujahideen war leaders all broke up and became warlords in various regions of Afghanistan. There was no common enemy once the soviets left.
One of the groups that grew out of this faction may be a name you are familiar with: the Taliban. Whose leader was a former mujahideen commander Mohammad Omar. Systematically, the Taliban took control of the country occupying Kabul in 1996.
So why do these different factions experience so much conflict?
One of the things you need to know to understand why there is conflict is the meaning of jihad. It can be defined as the Islamist idea there is a struggle against the enemies of Islam. The direct meaning of the word if translated is “to struggle”. It doesn’t always mean a violent struggle either. It can be used for instance the struggle to become a better person.
And of course, someone you may have heard of, Al-Qaeda. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are completely different entities. The word Taliban means “student”. They started at least with the desire to bring order to Afghanistan. Nearly all of their policies and goals are set within the borders of Afghanistan to bring about a better future for the Afghan people.
Al-Qaeda is completely different. The founder of al-Qaeda, maybe another name you know, was Osama bin laden.
During the war against the Soviets, the mujahideen and al-Qaeda worked together. After the war, their goals differed. While the Taliban was content to stop the jihad and continue to improve Afghanistan internally, al-Qaeda wanted to expand the jihad to other oppressed countries.
How did the Taliban and al-Qaeda again find common ground?
The year is 1999. The assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud occurred. He was a part of the Northern Alliance, the last anti-Taliban group in the northern part of the country. Cfr.org put it this way, “Terrorism experts believe his assassination assured Osama bin Laden protection by the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.”
So why attack America in 2001?
A research paper titled, “Hating America: Bin Laden as a civilizational revolutionary,” said it this way: “The big strategy of most other revolutionaries in ‘externalizing’ regional conflicts with his attacks on the United States.“
The 9/11 attacks were more symbolic than anything else. By attacking the Twin Towers they were attacking American economic values. By attacking the Pentagon they were attacking western military might. By attempting to hi-jack a plane into Washington, they were attacking western democracy.
And in doing so, they were successful, 9/11 despite having comparatively fewer casualties compared to other disasters is cemented in the American consciousness because of its relative modernity. We call it, “The day the earth stood still”. The country was reminded that we can be brought to our knees in a moment. We were not impenetrable or infallible.
The war on terror
President Bush says quote: “deliver to the United States authorities all the leaders of al-Qaeda who hide in your land,” or share in their fate. You know how the story goes from here. We dropped bombs. We killed opposition leaders. Lost key battles, lost some more.
Ultimately, the war has been broken up into three major parts. Part one: topple the Taliban. Second phase: defeat the Taliban militarily and rebuild key institutions. The third phase: counter-insurgency.
Which oozes common sense considering the Taliban were not responsible for the attacks on 9/11, al-Qaeda was. And uh, funny story, Osama bin Laden was not assassinated till May 2, 2011, nearly a decade later.
Initially, the US didn’t want to deploy troops out of Kabul, “out of concern that Afghanistan would become a drag on U.S. resources as attention shifted to Iraq.” Oh, the irony.
There is so much more information, so many consequences of this bloody conflict, that I could be sitting here the rest of my life reading about the intricacies of the 20-year conflict. But in the interest of getting this article to you all eventually, and constructing a cohesive narrative, I will do my best to summarize.
In October 2001, the fighting officially began as the U.S. dropped bombs to attack Taliban forces. By Nov., the Taliban began their retreat and lost the nation’s capital Kabul.
In Dec., Laden escaped from U.S. clutches after the criticized battle at Tora Bora cave complex. U.S. forces should have led the conflict but choose not to and as a result, Laden escapes. To understand what a big oopsie this was, the death of Laden would have effectively ended the war.
Dec. 5, Afghan groups are invited to Kabul, including the Northern Alliance, to form an interim government. By Dec. 8, 2001, the Taliban lost their last stronghold Kandahar. Al-Qaeda continues to hide in the mountains.
March 2002, came to the heavily criticized Operation Anaconda. Where US troops were ambushed and had another embarrassing loss. And guess what? Guess what bitch. While we are in the middle, smack in the middle of a war against the Taliban (but not al-Qaeda for some reason?), the Pentagon moves away from broadening the war efforts in Afghanistan and turns their attention to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In a move of absolute madness, Bush junior decides to continue the war his father started.
Anyways, in Apr. 2002, construction efforts began in Afghanistan. These efforts continued for some time, including having ‘major combat’ over in 2003, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004 a new president was announced.
And just when things seem to be getting better for the Afghan people, who shows up but our pal, Osama bin Laden. Remember him, the guy we were supposed to have been after this whole time. Ultimately this results in a bloody resurgence in 06’.
However, not all is lost, because another Taliban commander falls in 07’. By 09’ Obama now recommits to the fight in Afghanistan. Trying to add stability to the region, new strategies are introduced. And by 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed.
In 2014, Obama announced troop withdrawal. There is little change until 2017. At this point, the U.S. uses its most powerful non-nuclear bomb on Islamic State militants. At this point, the war is a stalemate. From there on it is a series of failed peace talks.
Until, on Feb. 29, 2020, the U.S. and Taliban sign a deal on the path to peace. On Sept. 19, 2020, Intra Afghan peace talks began. And again, on Nov. 17, 2020, America announces troop withdrawal. Ap. 14, 2021, Biden announces all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by 9/11.
Then boom. Like a house built on sand, on Aug. 15, 2021, the Afghan government collapses as the Taliban take Kabul.
There is so much more, so many battles, so many casualties, that have happened as a result of this war, and unfortunately, I simply can’t go over every misstep and atrocity that happened as a result of this war.
For more detailed reports on what happened in Afghanistan, check out CFR.org’s timeline on the war in Afghanistan. The Britannica also has a lot of good information on what happened in the last 20 years.
Why did we lose?
But if you’re like me, you’re a lot less interested in the what, and far more interested in the why.
From the hours I have spent researching, the documents I have poured over, the number one mistake I see the US making in the war on Afghanistan was not having a clearly defined goal or mission statement for what needed to happen overseas. They do this over and over again. What was the goal? Why invade Iraq? Why have the Taliban be our main target?
It’s true, the Taliban were harboring terrorists in Afghanistan but they were not our enemy, not really. Our enemy was Al-Qaeda. They were the group that was responsible for 9/11, not the Taliban. Yet when we invaded, we largely turned our attention towards the Taliban. Even once we did, President W. Bush turned his attention towards Iraq even though we had literally no reason to be there.
And much of the war continues in this fashion. With little directions and common sense that ultimately accomplishes nothing.
USA Today said, “The U.S. government has never provided a full accounting of the costs of America’s so-called ‘forever wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. But researchers at Brown University estimate that the U.S. has spent $5.8 trillion on the war in Afghanistan and other conflicts stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.”
And for what. Brookings.edu says it would cost 1.6 trillion to erase all debt. That means we could erase all students nearly four times over with all the money we wasted in the wars in the middle east.
It is wasted because of all the sacrifice of our injured veterans, their families and soldiers who lost their lives lost them in vein. We went in with the “intent” to stabilize the country; provide democracy, women’s rights, end the extremists and terror groups.
But Afghanistan is most certainly worse off than it was when foreign politics mettled in their government decades ago. In the 1960s, Afghanistan was modernizing, women went to school and could walk freely, it was a peaceful tourist destination and men and women could travel together.
In the 90s the Taliban began enforcing strict sharia law, and despite the U.S.’s best efforts, things are almost worse now for women than they were in the 90s. Once again the rights of women are being curtailed, women are being told not to leave their homes to work. Women who aren’t wearing burqa can be beaten. Women are burning their achievements.
All the progress that was made in the second half of this war was pointless. The Taliban are still in power, taking over the country in a week’s time. All the U.S. money we feed to help back the Afghan government did little more than feed corruption.
We lost our money, we lost soldiers and women lost rights they just only barely were beginning to have. Troops were drawn out seemingly overnight. and we have accomplished hardly anything. And the Biden administration is continuing this war seemingly the exact same way as we as a country have conducted this war for the last 20 years. With little direction, constantly changing our minds on who the true enemy is.
Frankly, I think if we had chosen to act on the intelligence that was available to us before 9/11 ever happened, if we had chosen to fund money towards womens’ rights groups, if we had kept our hands out of foreign affairs, we would be living in a much different world. Instead, I get to tell you we have accomplished little because we had few goals we wished to see completed, to begin with.
And the Afghan people, who overwhelmingly want nothing but peace, continue to live in what sounds like hell on earth. Trying to bounce back from what started as a cold war battle for the fate of a country.