Unpacking the Departure: Afghanistan, the U.S., and the future

Max Miller and Ben Katznelson

[slideshow_deploy id=’12851′]Just weeks after the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers, when Taliban leaders refused to surrender the Al Qaeda leaders who planned the attacks, President George W. Bush announced that American forces had launched attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan. “Now they will pay,” he said.
The Taliban gained popularity in the 1990s for curbing corruption and lawlessness, which was rampant following a period of civil war in Afghanistan. After capturing Kabul and overthrowing President Burhanuddin Rabbani in the 1990s, the Taliban began to take control of Afghanistan, ruling over 90% of the country by 2001 According to an article by the Council on Foreign Relations. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan’s legal system functioned based on Sharia, an interpretation of the Quran. It directly translates to “well-trodden path to water” or “the way,” according to the New World Encyclopedia. While Sharia can be interpreted and practiced in a multitude of ways, the Taliban’s particular interpretation has historically barred women from accessing education or work, led to the enforcement of strict dress codes, eradicated religious freedom and practically stripped the Afghan LGBTQ+ community of their right to express any aspect of their sexualities and identities. A violation of these laws often resulted in physical punishment, the most violent being public executions. In the eyes of Americans, the laws and practices of the Taliban were the antitheses of western civilization. However, it was not until the U.S. was directly affected by Al Qaeda – a byproduct of the Taliban regime – that action was taken.
Al Qaeda is an extremist group based in Afghanistan that carried out the attacks of 9/11. They are committed to the belief that Muslims everywhere should fight against those who support or uphold western ideologies and institutions. In the 1990s, Al Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden pledged allegiance to the Taliban. As the dominant political group in Afghanistan at the time of the attacks, the Taliban’s refusal to condemn Al Qaeda was enough to compel Bush to go to war. According to a 2001 Gallup News article, Bush’s campaign against the Taliban was heavily supported by Americans, with nearly 89 % saying they were in favor. As the country emerged from 9/11, Americans had united, not in the name of peace or equality, but in the name of revenge, otherwise known as “The War on Terrorism.”
In December 2001, military missions backed by the United States and the other countries of the North Atlantic Trading Organization (NATO) led to the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The group was far from eradicated, however, as the majority of its members and leaders fled to Pakistan. While the Taliban no longer held power in Afghanistan, Bush and following presidents believed that the War on Terrorism would not end until Al Qaeda was fully eradicated and the Democratic, westernized version of Afghanistan that they envisioned was able to survive on its own, without any threat of another Taliban takeover. Despite the fact that Al Qaeda was decimated early on and its leader Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011, bringing the vision of a westernized Afghanistan into fruition was not easy, nor was it ever fully completed.
Billions of dollars were spent on healthcare, education and rebuilding the government. While some gains were made regarding women’s rights and democracy, corruption and embezzlement inhibited progress significantly. Furthermore, American forces worked tirelessly with Afghani police officers and soldiers to fend off periodic and seemingly endless attacks from the Taliban. According to an article by the Associated Press, during the war nearly 180,000 people died; the majority were Afghan police and national military (66,000), Taliban fighters (51,000), and Afghan Civilians (47,000). As the monetary implications and American death count rose, there grew an increased desire among American politicians to withdraw from Afghanistan.
In February 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban struck a deal: the former agreeing to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. This peace deal, as well as apparent corruption within Afghanistan’s government, left many Afghans skeptical about the future of their nation. Though the Taliban were far from able to overthrow President Ashraf Ghani’s government at the time of the deal, it was clear to Afghan citizens that the consistent presence of the U.S. military was the only thing warding them off. However, the cost of the war had been dire in both lives and money, and no significant ground had been recently covered. When President Joe Biden assumed office in early 2021, he continued Trump’s policies concerning the withdrawal from Afghanistan. In April, he asserted that the U.S. had achieved its goal in the country: terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, could no longer find shelter within Afghanistan’s borders. He also said that, after 20 years of military presence, it had become apparent that no American influences could transform Afghanistan into a stable democracy as they had initially hoped. As such, Biden backed the plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, only altering Trump’s plan by moving the deadline to September 11. Biden was confident in his plan, saying on July 8 in a White House briefing that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
One month later, this “unlikely” possibility became Afghanistan’s reality. As U.S. forces proceeded to withdraw throughout the month, Taliban forces began retaking regions of Afghanistan at an astonishing rate. They overtook Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, on August 15, causing President Ghani to flee and American diplomats to be evacuated by helicopter. As chaos erupted in the streets of Kabul, millions of Afghan citizens were left to face their new realities: They were now living under the Taliban once again. Using the Taliban’s reign in the 1990s as precedent, the future appeared extremely grim.
The Taliban has a notoriously harsh reputation when it comes to women’s rights. From 1996-2001, women were banned from schools, holding jobs and revealing their full face in public. The increase in women’s rights that Afghanistan saw during the U.S. occupation was a reality for a whole generation of people. Now, for the first time since 1996, these gains appear to be in jeopardy. After their takeover of Kabul in August, the Taliban claimed that, after 20 years, their views on the restriction of women’s rights had softened and that women would not be banned from pursuing education or holding jobs. However, this claim has already proven to be false. Since August 15, Taliban leaders have told women to avoid work. While women will still be allowed to study, schools will be segregated by gender and required to enforce stricter dress codes for women. Additionally, the Taliban have replaced the U.S.-backed government’s Women’s Affairs Ministry with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue (in charge of implementing Islamic Laws as interpreted by the Taliban), their first step in working to halt the advancement of women’s rights.
The second Taliban era of Afghanistan has just begun, and the ways in which Afghanistan will change are still unclear. However, it is certain that the U.S. withdrawal left millions of Afghan citizens feeling hopeless. “We were betrayed by politics and presidents,” wrote Afghan National Army General Sami Sadat in the New York Times, “this was a military defeat, but it emanated from political failure.”

Information for this article was sourced from The Council on Foreign Relations, Gallup News, AP News, and the New York Times