Afghanistan War, the background.

A small outpost of US Army in Afghanistan, surrounded by mountains on 3 sides is attacked by 350 Taliban insurgents (we will cover the terms insurgents and counterinsurgency later in another post). Americans’ “mortar pit” had been neutralized by the insurgents (mortar pit is a defense structure capable of bombarding enemies from a long distance by firing different kinds of mortar shells, according to the situation). None of the Afghan soldiers who were in the coalition with the US Army were able to hold their grounds and they fled. The coalition also had a few Latvian soldiers helping the US Army. The American and Latvian defenders were compressed to a tight internal perimeter. And one of your brothers (an endearing term for the other soldiers in your platoon) is KIA (“Killed in Action“) and the other is WIA (“Wounded in Action”). You can see your wounded friend on the ground, injured and needing immediate medical attention to survive. You are in a broken down HMMWV (pronounced as Humvee), protected, but out of artillery. Will you risk your life to help your injured brother? Such are the decisions to be made in a battle, which is one of many in such a long war. In this particular instance, Ty Carter (then a Specialist) got out of the “Humvee” , crossed 30 meters of open space to provide life extending first aid to the injured soldier, exposed to enemy fire. He carried the injured soldier back to the Humvee and eventually to an aid station 100 meters away, again via open space. He did many such wonders on that fateful day and was awarded Medal of Honor by President Obama four years later.

The US Outpost Keating in this story. This is where the Battle of Kamdesh was fought. Picture courtesy: US Army.

The reason I tell this story is for you to recognize how hard wars are on human beings. Every individual life lost in most, if not all cases, leaves behind some grieving family and friends. And the trauma endured by the ones who participated in the war but survived is another epidemic to reckon with. It does take a lot of courage to put your life on the line, which is hard to fully comprehend for civilian folks like us. I am not a naive civilian who doesn’t understand the enormity of these undertakings and hence what I offer below is responsible writing. I am not in the business of selling papers so I don’t need to sell “outrage” , which is the common way of discourse in present times. People express outrage because that’s what sells and because that’s easy to do. If you are looking for an outrage, please look elsewhere. If you are looking for a reasonable overview of the background of The Afghanistan War, please continue reading further.

The United States pulled out all of its troops from Afghanistan by end of August 2021. There was an outcry in international media and the pundits from all across the world weighed in. However, very few fully understand the history of this war and what were Americans doing in Afghanistan in the first place. This write-up is to answer some of those questions. I am not a war expert in any way. However, I spent a lot of my after work hours and weekends researching this topic and this is the fruit of that labor.

Photograph Credit: Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty images

The History

To understand the 20 year war in Afghanistan (September 2001- August 2021), we need to go back in history to understand the background in Afghanistan. Since we cannot get into too many details in one post, it will be a very high level overview.

The Soviet War in Afghanistan (December 1979- February 1989).

Keeping minute details out, the Soviets went to war in Afghanistan to keep a communist leader in power. PDPA (a communist leaning party) had taken over Afghanistan, via a coup because they felt that that previous President Daoud (the 1st President since the collapse of monarchy, who himself had acquired power via a coup) was out there to terminate them. PDPA established Amin as the new leader and they started making the country secular and communist with Soviet help. They received a lot of backlash from the traditional Afghan people for whom Islam was very important. PDPA has been accused of imprisoning, torturing and murdering the traditional elites, which further increased the public resentment. Religion is one of the major things which aligns the disparate, ethnically different Afghan tribes, who did not agree with the new Leninist policies and its alignment with Soviet Union. There were mutinies in the Afghan army and Amir asked for Soviet help. The Islamic forces resisting Amin and PDPA are called Mujahideens. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, to quell the insurrection. The United States, via its CIA and Pakistan’s ISI, started arming these Mujahideens, to fight against the Soviets. The international pressure and great number of casualties lead to withdrawal of Soviet Union in 1989. Once the Soviet Union got out, the United States was no longer interested in pursuing any agenda in Afghanistan (the reason they had participated in the first place was to keep Soviet less influential in central Asia, which is close to oil rich Persian Gulf).

The Pakistan Interference and the Civil wars (1989-1994)

At the time of Soviet exit, PDPA was still in power. Pakistan’s ISI helped the Mujahideen to establish its own Government in 1989 but it failed. But the PDPA Government eventually crumbled and Afghanistan went into a civil war. George Washington University describes “Outside forces saw instability in Afghanistan as an opportunity to press their own security and political agendas”. The Mujahideen forces fell into factions and started fighting against each other, aided and abetted by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.

The Taliban (1994-2001)

In 1994, Mullah Omar started the group called Taliban, with less than 50 armed madarssah (a religious Islamic school) students in southern town of Kandahar. Pakistan backed Taliban (for its regional interests of trans-national Islamic revolution and its enmity with India) and Taliban were able to take power in some of the southern and central provinces of Afghanistan. In 1995, the interim Government of Massoud (up in the north) was able to defeat the other Mujahideen factions in Kabul and unify the others in what is called The United Front. Post that, Massoud initiated a nationwide process with the goal to establish democratic elections but Taliban declined to participate. The Taliban, with Pakistan’s military’s help and Saudi Arabia’s money was able to take over Kabul, while Massoud retreated to North. By September 11, 2001, Taliban controlled almost 90% of Afghanistan while The United Front (Northern Allies) controlled 10% of it, mainly in the north.

Al Qaeda, Bid Laden and September 11

One must ask how does Bin Laden fit in this story. Al-Qaeda was founded by Bin Laden and others for transnational Arab people to come and help fight Soviets in the Soviet Afghan War in 1988. The next logical question to ask is- if Bin Laden was helping the Mujahideens and so was the United States, why did Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda turn against the United States? The answer to this question is Iraq’s attack on Kuwait in 1990. With Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia was at a striking distance from Kuwait. Bin laden (a Saudi national) himself offered his Mujahideen forces to defend Saudi Arabia. However, the monarch declined the offer and opted for US help instead. This was the starting point of Bin Laden’s war against America. This is when he publicly started writing against America, calling that the presence of foreign troops (US) in “the land of two mosques” was a profanity to the sacred soil. Bin Laden was banished from Saudi Arabia for publicly speaking against the monarch and he lived in Sudan for a few years before he took refuge in Afghanistan in 1996. It is from Afghanistan that he masterminded September 11 attacks.

The final question: Why did America attack Afghanistan while the enemies were Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden?

Having gone over the history of Afghanistan from 1979-2001, we can see that Afghanistan has been a very unstable region. By September 11 2001, Taliban ruled over 90% of Afghanistan under the banner of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which they had established in 1996. Taliban had applied their own strict and radical interpretation of Sharia Law, which had no precedent. The conditions were very poor in Afghanistan by 2001. Only three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) recognized Taliban’s Government a rightful one between 1996 and 2001. After the attack on the United States on September 11, the US demanded Taliban to hand over Bin Laden to them, threatening them with military action if they refused. Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden citing insufficient evidence of his involvement in the attacks. This eventually led to invasion of Afghanistan by the United States.

In the next post, I will cover how the Taliban government was toppled by the US forces by November of 2001 and what happened in Afghanistan from 2001 until 2021. Why did the US stay in Afghanistan after toppling Taliban and eliminating most of Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan by December 2001? What were the US troops doing for the last twenty years? The answer is complicated and needs a detailed analysis and a separate post. The summary of that analysis is that the US goals were too lofty and the counterinsurgency was probably unwinnable to begin with. Stay tuned!