October 7, 2001: US President George W. Bush sits perched neatly behind the resolute desk of the Oval Office, directly facing the camera with a determined stare. Off-screen, his foot taps restlessly against the carpet. “Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against Al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan… We are joined in this operation by our staunch friend, Great Britain. Other close friends, including Canada, Australia, Germany, and France, have pledged forces as the operation unfolds [sic].”
In the month following the devastating and shocking 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration took the opportunity to wage a new kind of war: one against terror. The mass public support for the president (a whopping 92 per cent approval rating at one point) gave the administration the necessary momentum to take revenge against those who had wronged them. “Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. We will not fail,” Bush critically remarked. “The Taliban will pay a price.”
Two decades on from this initial 2001 invasion, poised on an effervescent and unique moment in history, and the wheel seems to have come full circle for the American story in Afghanistan. Four presidencies later, and the push-pull of who was winning or losing at any one moment has proved rather pointless, as new advances by the Taliban have threatened to reverse any undoubted civil liberty gains for the Afghan people. After 20 years of US and NATO involvement, with trillions of dollars spent and over 3,500 coalition deaths, the allied forces are set to fully withdraw under a formal agreement by September 11 of this year – and no, the date is not a coincidence.
As the US continues to remove troops, the Taliban has taken this chance to retaliate with increased aggression, reclaiming large territories at breakneck speeds. In the last week alone, they have stepped up the pace to recapture crucial provincial capitals such as Ghazni, Kandahar, along with nine other cities. Now, it appears that insurgents have taken Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, as well, in a bloodshed moment where Taliban helicopter gunships fired free reign over government buildings. This has drawn widespread recrimination for the US in its choice to carry on with troop withdrawals despite the obvious risk the Taliban still currently poses, and the security risk that they now present should they take charge of the entire government – which they most certainly will.
“This has led to some easy victories for the Taliban, who have now taken control of over two-thirds of the country and forced thousands of families to flee for their safety.”
The Afghan military, who have found it too difficult to defend rural districts, in response to the Taliban’s belligerence, have decided to simply abandon vast arrays of land – all in hopes of culminating their forces to defend (more) economically valuable cities. This has led to some easy victories for the Taliban, who have now taken control of over two-thirds of the country and forced thousands of families to flee for their safety. The Taliban has now also seized airports outside of Kunduz and Sheberghan in the north and Farah in the west, making it even more difficult to supply troubled government forces with arms.
President Joe Biden’s decision to continue the troop withdrawal (despite this retaliation) is unlikely to be reversed either. The agreement was made in May last year, under then-President Trump. It followed on from years of pressure at home to end America’s “forever wars,” and as a result Trump continued to sharply reduce troop numbers each year. Not an unpopular move, the appetite for war and revenge seemingly evaporated from the American public’s conscience.
However, the US can still wield power from a minority position (without direct involvement) if it persists with its effective air strikes and special force’s operations. Other powers such as Pakistan, Iran, and Russia can also help, if they so choose, to push the Taliban to make concessions in return for recognition.
This might include a power-sharing agreement which could see guarantees on women’s rights and free expression, or a peaceful transfer of power. Encouragingly, some in the Taliban leadership do not wish to become a pariah state once more, and recognise that to run the country successfully they would need some foreign trade links and international aid. However, all these talks of peace negotiations still seem a long way off, especially if one side presently has all the leverage.
Unfortunately, it does not seem in any scenario that there will be a valedictory moment for the final US troops who depart Afghanistan by September. The advancements made for women and young girls in terms of education and freedom, amongst others, are set to be lost when abject Islamic law is reinstated as a societal norm by the Taliban for the Afghan people. Washington now must cut its losses, but equally recognise its moral obligation to the country which it so failed; the final military cargo plane shooting off into the sky a lasting reminder of the shortcomings with the American imperialism ideology, which it so loves.
20 years later: July 14, 2021. Former US President George W. Bush sits down for an interview with DW News. His hair is greyer now, his eyes more dispirited and wearier than in 2001. “Is the withdrawal a mistake?” asks the interviewer. “You know, I think it is, yeah. I think that because the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad; and eh—I’m sad… It seems like [The Afghan people] are just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and eh – It breaks my heart.”
Featured photo by Mohammad Rahmani
This article was supported by: STAND Business & Politics Editor Sean + Programme Assistant Alex