Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States of America, once said: “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future”. If President George W. Bush had taken such a quote more seriously, perhaps the US would have avoided one of the greatest mistakes in its foreign policy – Afghanistan’s occupation in late 2001, which was the first step of the War on Terror, a campaign launched in response to the September 11 attacks, against terrorists groups.
However, the core issue was not the invasion itself. That decision arose after the Taliban’s failure to comply with the American government’s requests to hand over bin Laden and dismantle al-Qaeda, since the US wanted to avoid subsequent attacks. Instead, it is generally acknowledged that the attempt to build a government and to stabilize the country was an unattainable goal, which in fact resulted in an extraordinary failure. After a 20-year mission, the US Army and the NATO forces began the withdrawal from Afghanistan in May 2021. Almost three months later, on August 15th, the Taliban gained control of Kabul, and the ease with which the Taliban conquered the region left the public baffled. According to The New York Times, the American intelligence had estimated that it would take at least a year and a half of war, before the Taliban resumed control of the country. Instead, the Afghan National Army, trained by the NATO coalition during its mission, collapsed in a matter of weeks. The unsettling images of the crowd rushing to escape on military airplanes and the Taliban flag waving on the presidential palace on September 11, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, ultimately confirmed the great failure of the US mission in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, history had repeatedly demonstrated how difficult it was to conquer and rule a country such as Afghanistan. Going back in time, it is observable how this desertic country located in South Central Asia has been subject to numerous foreign invasions over the course of its millennial history. Reasons are mainly given by its strategic geographical location, which makes the country a buffer state between Iran – once Persia -, India, and Russia. In the sixth century B.C. , the Persian Achaemenid Empire of Darius invaded the country, succeeded by Alexander the Great. In the first decade of the eighth century, the country was annexed by the Islamic Caliphate. Later, in 1219, it was the turn of the Mongol Empire led by Genghis Khan. Then, there is the birth of the modern Afghan State, coinciding with the 1747 conquest of Ahmad Shah Durrani, leader of the Pashtun tribes. His territory gathered the present borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Iranian provinces of Khorasan and Kohistan.
From the 19th century, the country was involved in the political confrontation, known as “The Great Game”, between the British and the Russian Empires. The Russian expansion in Asia was seen as a menace to the British army and its colonized India. From 1839 to 1842, the First Anglo-Afghan War took place. The result was an incredible defeat of the British army, the most powerful military nation at that time. Thirty-six years later, the country faced the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). The aftermath resulted in the Treaty of Gandamak, in which the Afghan leaders agreed to let the British control the Afghan foreign affairs in exchange for protection in case of external aggressions. Later on, Afghanistan regained its full independence with the 1919 Third Anglo-Afghan War, when Britain decided to renounce their power over Afghan foreign policy.
However, governments struggled to maintain stability all over the 20th century. In 1978, a coup brought the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – Marxist-inspired party, to take control of the country. In order to help the party to face the rebellions of the discontented population, the Soviet Union decided to invade the country with 100,000 troops. The United States responded to the Russian invasion by financing and militarily supporting the Afghan Mujahedeen, the armed Islamist rebel groups from which the Taliban themselves would emerge a few years later. The country was ravaged by the 10-year Soviet-Afghan War, which was characterized by cruelties and systematic violations of human rights, as Asia Watch reported in its five documents on human rights since 1984. In February 1989, the Soviet army withdrew from the country, demonstrating once again the tenacity of the Afghan people and their strong desire for independence. Yet, there is still no peace for Afghanistan. Fragmentation between the Mujahedeen groups brought to a new civil war, which saw the Taliban seizing control over Kabul and establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996. Almost seventy percent of the country was under the Taliban regime and the remaining was mainly controlled by the other Afghan commanders, who joined together in the “Northern Alliance” against the Taliban. From 1996 to 2001, Afghan people living in Taliban-ruled-territories witnessed the imposition of the Sharia law, and the consequent annulment of many women’s rights. It is in such a political scenario that al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden take root in the territory.
The events of September 11, 2001 were not the first terrorist attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda against the United States. In 1998, two American embassies, respectively in Tanzania and Kenya, exploded causing the death of more than 200 people. The bombings were linked to al-Qaeda, and bin-Laden was placed on the FBI ten most-wanted fugitives list. However, only after the 9/11 attacks the US decided to invade Afghanistan. Thus, it is the beginning of a ruinous war for the United States, whose ending could be foreseen by having a look at the history of the Asiatic country and at the previous attempts of aggression by the British and the Russian armies. For sure, such a long war was avoidable. The US counted 2,325 military deaths, and almost 4,000 US civilian contractors were killed.
Moreover, it cannot be forgotten the extremely expensive costs the US and the other NATO States had to incur. According to Forbes, “In the 20 years since September 11, 2001, the United States has spent more than $2 trillion on the war in Afghanistan. That’s $300 million dollars per day, every day, for two decades. Or $50,000 for each of Afghanistan’s 40 million people.” Of this shocking number, $83 billion were spent on training the Afghan defense forces, as reported by Foreign Policy. Despite such investments, the troops almost vanished as soon as the NATO coalition left the country, leaving the passage free to the Taliban. The main reasons could lie in the local mismanagement and corruption. Sources also affirmed a general demoralization and distrust of the government pervaded the soldiers, who decided to abandon their positions.
What is al-Qaeda up to now? Did the US succeed in defeating the organization? The answer is not clear. Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011, after a long manhunt, and consecutively the organization has weakened and has moved to Pakistan. Yet, al-Qaeda is still alive, and even though its action against the West has practically disappeared, its presence is still of great importance in the Jihadist world. In short, the US 20-year mission in Afghanistan resulted in an almost entire failure and in a huge waste of human lives and money. Once again, the indomitable and restless country has demonstrated not to accept being controlled by foreign powers, and it is definitely time to learn this lesson from history.
Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 – Afghanistan, 1 January 1994, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca83b.html [accessed 4 December 2021]
Roman. Global Governance student at Tor Vergata, University of Rome.
Passionate about geopolitics and international relations. I like writing: it’s my way to find answers to my doubts.