What the U.S. got Wrong About Afghanistan

How the aftermath of troop withdrawals showed us why we were there in the first place…

Photo Courtesy of Sam Shepherd

By: Hayden Cunningham


In August 2021, the United States formally withdrew all remaining troops from Afghanistan and closed all American military bases in the country. The move ended over twenty years of U.S. military presence but was met with many consequences. The withdrawal was done precipitously, creating the unexpected result of the Taliban regaining power faster than intelligence agencies expected. The withdraw also created a humanitarian crisis in the country as well with thousands of Americans and Afghans attempting to flee the country. The troop withdrawal, as well as how it was implemented, has created numerous national security concerns for the United States that must be addressed.

History of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan

In 1979, The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan from the north by sending thousands of Troops into Kabul (the capitol of Afghanistan) and various parts of the country. They were met heavy opposition from the Mujahideen, an Islamic resistance group (that engages in Jihad). Still, the Russians appointed a leader of Afghanistan and continued to fight the Mujahideen.

As a response to USSR aggression, President Reagan met with Mujahideen leaders at the White House. Regan called them “freedom fighters” and supported their efforts in Afghanistan. Under Reagan’s administration, the military strategy known as “Operation Cyclone” went into effect to stop the USSR’s attempts to invade Afghanistan. This program gave the CIA the ability to finance the Mujahideen and supply them with weapons to fight the Soviets. The intention, like many of Reagan’s foreign policy ventures, was to fight Communism and decrease Soviet control. Afghanistan is a historically rich-resourced land, thus one of the reasons for constant territorial conflict. The Mujahideen successfully fought against the Soviets, and in 1989 Russia withdrew from the country.

Following the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989), the country of Afghanistan broke out into Civil War. Several Mujahideen groups warred with one another for power. By 1994, a militia backed by Pakistan rose to power. This militia was the Taliban. By 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul and took over the country.

On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by several terrorists who hijacked commercial airplanes and flew direct into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The terrorists were tied to Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization lead by Osama Bin Laden.

Following the attacks of the World Trade Center, the U.S. issued an ultimatum to the Taliban that they hand over Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists. When they refused, the U.S. declared war and entered Afghanistan.

President Bush made clear the intentions of the mission: to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime. This military plan would be known as “Operation Enduring Freedom.” The initial intention of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was not nation building. The intention was to declare war on the government harboring the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks and have a continual interest of attacking the United States homeland.

By the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, he redefined the mission in Afghanistan. In his farewell address, Bush stated the following: “with strong allies at our side, we have taken the fight to the terrorists and those who support them. Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al Qaeda and stoned women in the streets to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school” (Bush, 2009). This would change the perspective of many Americans regarding our involvement in Afghanistan. America’s anti-terrorist campaign in the Middle East will begin to be criticized as “nation building.”       

In 2009, Barack Obama understood the main objective in Afghanistan. When he announced the end of the war in Iraq, he explained that a military presence in Afghanistan was still necessary (Obama, 2009). In 2012, the year after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama made a statement from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. There, he again made clear our initial objective in the country: “10 years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us” (Obama, 2012).


President Bush’s announcement of the attack in Afghanistan

President Obama continually decreased the number of troops in Afghanistan throughout his presidency. However, he understood that a certain number of troops must remain to ensure our success would not become obsolete. “Others will ask, why don’t we leave immediately? That answer is also clear: We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al Qaeda could establish itself once more. And as Commander-in-Chief, I refuse to let that happen” (Obama, 2012).

Similarly, President Trump held the view that we should decrease the number of troops in Afghanistan. Donald Trump heavily campaigned his foreign policy on the idea of isolationism. He argued that American troops have no business being in conflicts that do not serve the country’s interest. However, his military advisors helped him recognize the importance of a minimal presence in Afghanistan. In his 2017 remarks at Fort Myer, President Trump had this to say about future military presence in Afghanistan:

“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable… a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th. And, as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq” (Trump, 2017).

President Trump decreased the number of troops in Afghanistan, but kept a skeleton crew of troops in the country. By the end of the Trump administration, roughly 2,500 U.S. troops remained.

The 2021 Troop Withdrawal

President Biden made it clear that his administration would call for the complete withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan. On July 8, President Biden held a press conference regarding the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. When asked by a reporter if a Taliban takeover of the country is now inevitable, the President responded, “no, it is not.” Unfortunately for the United States, that is exactly what occurred.

On August 6, the Taliban took over its first province as the U.S. troops began to withdraw. U.S. intelligence agencies estimated that it would take the Taliban approximately ninety days to take over the capitol of Afghanistan. But by August 15, the Taliban took over the city of Kabul and the Presidential Palace. Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, fled the country and U.S. diplomats were evacuated out of the Kabul embassy by helicopter. Mass evacuations were carried out by the United States at the Kabul airport. 3,000 troops were sent into Afghanistan to help evacuate American citizens, Afghan allies, and refugees to the United States.

Struggling to evacuate Americans as quickly as possible, the Pentagon declined to comment how many Americans were evacuated. To worsen the evacuation crisis, the Taliban stated that there will be consequences if the U.S. does not withdraw all military forces by August 31. Upon hastily withdrawing, U.S. troops left billions of dollars of equipment and weapons that the Taliban have taken. Most notably being night-vision equipment, helicopters, and over 350,000 assault rifles (Gibbons-Neff, 2021).

Table 1

Estimated number of U.S. equipment now in possession of the Taliban

EquipmentDescriptionNo. of items
HumveeGround vehicle22,174
M1117Ground vehicle634
MxxPro mine-proof vehiclesGround vehicle155
M113 armoured personnel carriersGround vehicle169
Pick-up trucks and SUVsGround vehicle42,000
Machine guns
Firearm 64,363
TrucksGround vehicle8,000
RadiosCommunication device162,043
Night vision goggles/devicesVision improvement device16,035
Assault riflesFirearm358,530
PistolsFirearm126,295
Artillery piecesFirearm176
Mi-17Helicopter33
UH-60 BlackhawkHelicopter33
MDS30Helicopter43
C-130 transportsFixed wing aircraft4
Embraer EMB 314/A29 Super TucanoFixed wing aircraft23
Cessna 208Fixed wing aircraft28
Cessna AC-208 strike AircraftFixed wing aircraft10

Data from The New York Times

On August 26, the Kabul Airport was attacked by multiple terrorists. The suicide bomber who carried out the attack was a prisoner that was released from Bagram air base days earlier (Liebermann & Bertran, 2021). The attack killed over 100 people, including at least 13 U.S. troops. Press secretary Jen Psaki commented in a White House briefing about the Taliban deadline, stating, “I don’t think we can guarantee evacuations of all Americans who want to leave Afghanistan after August 31.” By August 30, the U.S. completed their withdrawal of the troops in Afghanistan. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans remain in the country (As well as our Afghan allies).

Disagreements with Removing Troops at this Time

On July 8 when President Biden announced we will be withdrawing all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by August 31, not one soldier had died from a gunfight since February 2020 (Ali et al., 2021). 2,500 troops were in the country, but they were not actively in harm’s way. Our presence in the country was a deterrent to keep the peace and prevent fighting.

Currently, there are roughly 40,000 U.S. troops in Germany, 55,000 U.S. troops in Japan, and 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. American troops are also stationed in Middle Eastern countries such as Syria without any criticism from the current White House administration. Maintaining a minimal presence in the unstable region of Afghanistan until a more appropriate time to withdraw would have made more sense at this time. When you remove U.S. presence in an area, you create a vacuum for terrorism. This exact result occurred under President Obama when he ordered troops out of Iraq and the terrorist group ISIS was immediately formed. Keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan who were not actively involved in gunfights does not count as an “endless war.” It also does not qualify as “nation building.” The cost of these troops stationed in Afghanistan was small. The benefits of keeping them there have been made clear in recent weeks.

The reason the Afghan military failed to restrain the Taliban was because of their dependence on American power. The Afghan army has fought for years against the Taliban; over 50,000 Afghans have died in the last seven years. But the U.S. built their military to be dependent on them. Until now, one major dependency of the Afghan army was America’s Air Force. The U.S. also withdrew military contractors of the Afghan army. The U.S. promised the Afghan government that it will assist in making the Afghan military a strong and capable power, but troops were withdrawn before the Afghan forces had confident independency. 

The Afghan army also requested that if the United States was determined to withdrawal, it would be done during the winter. Winter is not part of the “fighting season” in the country because the Taliban has trouble fighting in the winter. Had the U.S. withdrawn troops in the winter, it would have increased the time between troop removal and conflict with the Taliban. This would have given the Afghan military more time to prepare to battle the Taliban once spring arrived (Sopel, 2021). Instead, President Biden withdrew troops in August to adhere to the demands of the Taliban.

Criticisms of the Execution of the Troop Withdrawal

Joe Biden stated that his plan to completely withdrawal from Afghanistan was a continuation of a deal made by the Trump administration. This claim is misleading. During Trump’s presidency, his administration made a deal with the Taliban that we would withdrawal all our troops if the Taliban met certain conditions put in place (President Donald Trump White House Archives, 2021). The Taliban was not meeting the agreed conditions, so the removal of U.S. troops was no longer obligatory.  

Against the advice of several intelligence officials, Joe Biden proposed that troops be pulled out of Afghanistan. His original date for complete withdraw was September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Biden promised that the withdrawal was not going to be like the failed evacuation of Saigon after the end of the Vietnam War. He promised that the public would not see hasty evacuations from the embassy. He also assured the public that the withdrawal does not guarantee an inevitable takeover of the country by the Taliban. None of this was true. The Taliban was able to take complete control of the country in a matter of days. The President of Afghanistan fled the country and the Taliban took control of the Presidential Palace.

Biden’s rushed decision to withdraw caused a mass panic at the Kabul Airport. The tiny airport, controlled by the U.S. during the evacuation, had planes evacuating people as fast as possible. Afghan citizens rushed the airstrip, some trying to jump onto the wings of the plane. Individuals were so desperate to flee Taliban rule, they hung onto the wheels of the plane and eventually fell from the sky and died (Wong et. al., 2021). Afghan mothers were giving U.S. soldiers their babies to take to America. This created a huge humanitarian crisis at the airport that complicated U.S. efforts to remove its own citizens.

President Biden was unable to guarantee the safety of Americans still in the country past the withdrawal date. The President was determined to uphold the deadline of August 31 set in place by the Taliban. The administration eventually admitted that there will in fact be Americans left in the country after the deadline. These Americans, and every one of the United States’ Afghan allies, are assumed to be hunted down and murdered by the Taliban in the coming weeks.

Current and Future National Security Concerns

There are five major national security concerns both presently and in the future that our country must address regarding the troop withdrawal of Afghanistan:

  1. Vulnerability to future terrorist attacks from groups rooted in Afghanistan

When the United States withdrew troops from Iraq, ISIS became more prominent in the region. This led to a string of ISIS-related terror attacks in the U.S. and in Europe. These groups engage in asymmetrical warfare rather than conventional methods of war. These types of attacks increase when a terrorist group obtains power and legitimacy. The withdraw from Afghanistan will have the same effect. The Taliban’s obtainment of the country enables them to have a platform for terror. Since the time of our withdrawal, the group known as ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province) has become more prominent in Afghanistan. This group disagrees with Taliban law, stating that it does not go far enough in practicing Islamic rule. This more extreme terrorist group could pose major threats to the region and the United States.

            The White House argues that the U.S. has “over-the-horizon capabilities” to effectively fight terrorists in Afghanistan should we need to. But these capabilities are only as effective as the systems that point out targets. By not having troops on the ground, drawing targets can be more difficult. Following the Kabul terrorist attack that killed American troops, the U.S. recently conducted a drone strike in Kabul to target suspected ISIS-K suicide bombers in a home. Reports showed that the strike had bad intelligence; the strike did not in fact kill terrorist but rather civilians. Ten members of a civilian family, seven of which were children, were causalities of this strike (Sidhu et.al, 2021)

  1. Military equipment left behind now in possession of the Taliban

With billions of dollars of U.S. military equipment left behind, the Taliban is a stronger fighting force than they have been in the past. Many gunfights between the U.S. and the Taliban was largely one-sided due to a technological advantage of equipment (night vision and air vehicles, for example). Now, the Taliban is in possession of these weapons. This also raises a concern of the possibility of the Taliban sharing the equipment with Pakistan and China for reverse-engineering.

  1. Human rights violations and refugee assistance

Under Taliban law, women in Afghanistan will be forced to live under strict scrutiny that has not been seen in the country since before 9/11. The average age in Afghanistan is eighteen; most Afghans do not remember life under Taliban law. The notable violation of human rights will be the treatment of women: women will not be allowed to walk outside unaccompanied by a husband or father, women will be forced to wear head coverings, and women will no longer be allowed to attend schools (Rezvani, 2021).

            For the Afghan citizens that were evacuated by the United States, their life in America will require assistance from the government. The U.S. will have to overlook the welfare of refugees that will now be applying for citizenship. Two major questions are raised from this problem: how will these people be helped, and is the U.S. government vetting Afghan refugees to ensure that none have ties to terror groups abroad?

CNN reporter in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban takeover
  1. Perception on the world stage of the way the United States treats its allies

By withdrawing from Afghanistan before coordinating a strategy with the government, the United States showed the world that it will not effectively back its allies. This has raised concerns already on the world stage. The Global Times, a China state-affiliated media company, had the following to say about the Afghan troop withdrawal: “Once a cross-Straits war breaks out while the mainland seized the island with forces, the U.S. would have to have a much greater determination than it had for Afghanistan, Syria, and Vietnam if it wants to interfere.” In this statement, China’s state-affiliated media company is saying that a war between China and Taiwan will occur, and that the United States will not be able to defend Taiwan (Wallace-Wells, 2021).

  1. Leadership from the President during a time of crisis

      Throughout this crisis, President Biden was unable to assure the people of the U.S. and Afghanistan. At the time of chaos in Afghanistan at the Kabul airport, the President was on vacation in Delaware and then at Camp David. He returned from his vacation to the White House, made a statement, and returned back to vacation. The White House also lacked a willingness to answer questions from reports for the first days of the crisis.

            More concerning, President Biden made sure to adhere to the Taliban’s demands for an August 31 troop withdrawal. Rather than telling the Taliban when U.S. troops will be removed, he ordered the troops to be removed when the Taliban asked. The deadline was enforced so heavily, thousands of Americans may be left behind in the country with no assistance to leave. By letting terrorists make demands and adhering to them, the President failed to take a strong stance in deterring the killing of American citizens in American military allies in Afghanistan. Furthermore, A report showed that U.S. officials gave the Taliban “a list of names of American citizens, green card holders and Afghan allies to grant entry into the militant-controlled outer perimeter of the city’s airport.” One defense official stated that “basically, they just put all those Afghans on a kill list” (Seligman et. al., 2021).

Action the United States Should Take to Alleviate Possible Consequences

Little can be ton alleviate the loss of power in Afghanistan by the United States. Essentially, the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan has occurred to what it was before the U.S. invaded in the first place. For the U.S. to regain control of the country, another invasion would need to occur. While this could occur in the future in response to another 9/11 scale terror attack, it is not an effective strategy at this given time. The pragmatic response for the United States going forward would be to reestablish the military as a dominant force on a global scale. The Taliban’s control will likely create a ripple effect in foreign conflicts. Iran, for example, may grow increasingly unstable and be more willing to engage in military conflicts with neighboring countries. They may also continue to ramp up their nuclear programs. China and Russia may also be more aggressive with their respective neighboring countries.

The United States must draw clear red lines so that its adversaries do not characterize its military status as passive and blind. The most concerning conflict in the short-term future will be between China and Taiwan. Israel may also see increasing conflict with neighboring countries like Palestine and Iran. The U.S. must do everything in its power to show world leaders it will militarily back allies and stop aggressors from carrying out hostile attacks or promoting terrorism.

The American public must also be informed properly on the justification for U.S. presence oversees. Nation building is not popular among the public and it rarely serves the interest of the United States. The objective in Afghanistan was not nation building at first, but rhetoric from several Presidents over the last two decades has clouded the perception of voters. The White House and the Pentagon must be able to clearly express why certain military actions are for the greater good of the country’s national security.

            As for the state of Afghanistan, the only action the United States can take going forward is alleviating the humanitarian crisis now at hand. The U.S. should look to the United Nations to aide Afghans and ensure that the Taliban does not violate any human rights, especially with their treatment of women. The United States may attempt to have diplomatic relations with the Taliban an in attempt to ensure that terror attacks will not occur in the future, but doing so may have an adverse-effect where granting the terrorist group legitimacy on the world stage makes them more powerful and thus more of a threat to the country. Most importantly, the United States must do everything in its power to prevent the possibility of a string of terrorist attacks on American citizens, and it must attempt to save and evacuate any remaining Americans in the country of Afghanistan.

References

Ali et. al. (2021, August 26) Pentagon bracing for more attacks after troops killed at Kabul Airport. Reuters https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/explosion-outside-kabul-airport-casualties-unclear-pentagon-2021-08-26/

Bush, G. (2009). President Bush Delivers Farwell Address to the Nation. President George W. Bush White House Archives https://georgewbushwhitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2009/01/20090115-17.html

Gibbons-Neff, T. (2021, August 30). In Afghanistan, an Unceremonious End, and a Shrouded Beginning The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/30/world/asia/us-withdrawal-afghanistan-kabul.html

Liebermann, O. & Bertran, N. (2021, October 6) ISIS-K suicide bomber who carried out deadly Kabul airport attack had been released from prison days earlier. CNN https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/06/politics/kabul-airport-attacker-prison/index.html

Obama, B. (2009). Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Barack Obama White House Archives https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-address-nation-way-forward-afghanistan-and-pakistan

Obama, B. (2012). Remarks by President Obama in Address to the Nation from Afghanistan. President Barack Obama White House Archives https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2012/05/01/remarks-president-obama-address-nation-afghanistan

President Donald J. Trump Is Taking A Historic Step to Archive Peace in Afghanistan And Bring our Troops Home. (2020)President Donald Trump White House Archives https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-taking-historic-step-achieve-peace-afghanistan-bring-troops-home/

Rezvani, A. (2021, September 20) For Afghan Women, Life Under The Taliban is Taking Shape. NPR https://www.npr.org/2021/09/20/1038854792/for-afghan-woman-life-under-the-taliban-is-taking-shape

Seligman et. al. (2021, August 26) U.S. officials provided Taliban with names of Americans, Afghan allies to evacuate. Politico https://www.politico.com/news/2021/08/26/us-officials-provided-taliban-with-names-of-americans-afghan-allies-to-evacuate-506957

Sidhu et. al. (2021, August 30) Ten family members, including children, dead after US Strike in Kabul. CNN https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/29/asia/afghanistan-kabul-evacuation-intl/index.html

Sopel, J (2021, August 17) Afghan chaos undercuts Biden’s promise of competence. BBC News https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-58252174

Trump, D. (2017). Full Transcript and Video: Trump’s Speech on Afghanistan. The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/world/asia/trump-speech-afghanistan.html

Wallace-Wells, B. (2021, August 19) Will the Next American War be with China? The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-inquiry/will-the-next-american-war-be-with-china

Wong et. al. (2021, August 16) Videos show desperation at Kabul airport as Afghans crowdplanes, cling to jets to escape. NBC News https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/videos-show-desperation-kabul-airport-afghans-crowd-planes-cling-jets-n1276906

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s