How the U.S. Got Into and Out of Afghanistan
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. war in Afghanistan has been the longest in American history, lasting 20 years. In the conflict’s second decade, plans for an exit of U.S. forces were repeatedly put off, but President Joe Biden finally withdrew most of them by August 2021 and NATO-led allied troops followed suit. The drawdown of foreign forces was met by unexpectedly swift battlefield advances by the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalists who ruled the country before the U.S. invasion. In mid-August, after retaking most of the country, they entered the capital Kabul, prompting the return of some foreign troops to help evacuate diplomats. The roots of the conflict stretch back at least 40 years.
Soviet invasion and occupation
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed a Marxist puppet regime, an attempt to impose order after two separate coups. Millions of Afghanis fled to Pakistan and other nearby countries, while thousands of others took up arms against the Red Army. The U.S., seeing a chance to stymie its Cold War foe, provided weapons to Afghan militias, including radical Islamist factions. In 1989, the Soviet military pulled out.
Warlords and chaos
After the Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. also disengaged. Bloody chaos followed as militias contended for power, all but leveling Kabul in the process. In the early 1990s the Taliban was formed in the country’s south as a movement among pious youth. They transformed themselves into a fighting force and seized Kabul in 1996. The Taliban imposed stern theocratic rule, enforcing harsh restrictions particularly on women, who were largely barred from education and work. The Taliban also provided a base for the terrorist group al-Qaeda, which had formed to fight the Soviets but by 1998 was waging a campaign against the U.S.
In 2001, after the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his group’s Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. When bin Laden and the Taliban leadership fled, the U.S. mission morphed into a nation-building undertaking — but with limited military resources, as the U.S. focused on a separate war in Iraq. Eventually, more than 50 nations joined the coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The U.S.-supported government in Kabul made advances in women’s rights and restored educational opportunities for girls. But corruption plagued the government. And the Afghanistan security forces, despite training and support from the U.S. and its allies, were unable to stop the Taliban, who’d found safe haven in Pakistan, from regaining their strength.
Obama’s surge and reversal
In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a “surge” in forces that reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011, a decision opposed by his vice president, Biden, who favored a more limited engagement focused on anti-terrorism. Military commanders reported progress on the ground, but war fatigue at home, especially after the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan, led Obama to start winding down the American troop presence. Doubts that the Afghan military could stand on its own prompted him to leave the last of them in place when he turned the presidency over to Donald Trump in January 2017.
Trump came into office declaring that the U.S. should avoid military entanglements and nation-building abroad to focus more resources at home. But within a year, he had deployed an additional 3,500 U.S. troops to the country at the Pentagon’s urging. In 2020, frustrated by the Taliban’s tenacity, he struck a deal with the group and began another drawdown that was scheduled to be completed by May 2021.
Biden entered office in 2021 arguing that it’s not America’s burden to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and that the price of remaining was too high given the odds of success; by then the U.S. had incurred about 2,400 fatalities and spent about $970 billion on the conflict. Biden officials had encouraged negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in an effort to end the fighting before U.S. forces departed, but the talks faltered. In April, Biden announced that all U.S. forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, saying it’s “time to end the ‘forever war.’” In mid-August, with the Taliban at the gates of Kabul, Ghani fled the country.
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