Twenty years ago, the United States invaded Afghanistan when the Taliban were ruling over there. The apparent purpose of this invasion was that the Taliban refused to extradite Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the terrorist attacks in New York and the leader of Al Qaeda, to the United States. The 20-year-long war between the United States and the Taliban, what US President Joe Biden terms as “forever war”, has come to an end after the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15.
Although the war between the United States and the Taliban came to an end when the United States signed an agreement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) in Doha in February 2020. Why did the US lose in Afghanistan? What were the reasons? Was it possible to avoid such a defeat? These are the questions that American and international experts in international relations and war strategy will continue to ponder and interpret in their way in the years to come. The following lines will also try to find answers to these questions.
Why did the US end the 20-year war in Afghanistan?
Only a few years after the war began in October 2001, the commanders of the coalition forces realized that it was difficult for them to win the war. According to Christina Lamb (Sunday Times Chief Correspondent), Brigadier Mark Carleton Smith, commander of the British Army at a firebase in Helmand province in 2008, told her in an interview that the war in Afghanistan could not be won militarily. He may have been the first senior Allied military officer to say so publicly, and the story made headlines on the British Sunday Times. The then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates immediately called Carlton Smith a “loser” in the news media.
US President Joe Biden, thirteen years later, seems to have reached the same conclusion as the British Brigadier. In April, Biden announced that the United States would withdraw all its remaining troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which he called “the forever war”. But now, such an evacuation was only a foregone conclusion as the Taliban proved to be a stubborn enemy that was not going anywhere, while the Taliban controlled half of the country.
How did the war that was once known as the “Good War” (to distinguish it from the Iraq war) go so wrong? “The American War in Afghanistan: A History” is the subject of a new book, which claims to be America’s first comprehensive account of this longest war. The author of the book, Carter Malkasian, is a historian who has spent considerable time, first as a civilian official in Helmand Province and then as a senior adviser to the US military commander in Afghanistan.
Carter Malkasian considers how it is possible that in 2011, with 140,000 troops and some of the world’s most advanced equipment, the United States and its NATO allies failed to defeat the Taliban. Moreover, despite the cost of more than $2 trillion and the loss of more than 3,500 lives of the Allied soldiers, and the severe injuries of many soldiers, why did the Western powers continue this war in Afghanistan? It has long been known that this was an invincible warrior.
Where did the US go wrong?
According to Malkasian, the United States committed mistakes between 2001 and 2006 that led to its failure. Everyone is now aware of the list of mistakes that he has listed. According to him, Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld did not want to invest in the Afghan army and by the end of 2003, only 6,000 Afghan soldiers had been trained. The warlords, who were often blamed for the violence in the Afghanistan countryside, at first roamed freely and later became members of parliament and ministers in the Afghan government.
Similarly, at a time when the United States and its allies were pushing the Taliban out of the negotiating table for a political solution to the Afghan problem, the United States failed to realize that the Taliban still represented a point of view that is an acceptable and common point of view for the majority of Pashtuns. Malkasian suggests that the United States should have put its advantage behind it, and at a time when the Afghan government had public support and the Taliban were under pressure, the United States had empowered militias and launched counterterrorism operations that disengaged ordinary Afghans from the whole system and the Taliban took advantage of this element and started organizing themselves once again.
The majority of American and Western experts view the Taliban’s victory in the war against the United States only from a violence-based religious perspective, while forgetting the fact that their continued resistance against the US and NATO forces and their subsequent victory over coalition forces is a victory against external aggression.
They have won against the invaders, and the same ideology was popular among ordinary Afghans, especially in rural areas, which enabled the Taliban to fight a long war of twenty years. Although they had enjoyed the tacit support of regional powers which were against the presence of the American forces in this region yet no one can deny the fact that it is not possible to win wars without indigenous support.
Dr. Tahir Ashraf holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and teaches at the Department of International Relations, Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, Pakistan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.