US Relations With Afghanistan: What Happened?

by Therese Askarbek


October 30, 2021

On August 30, 2021, the last of the US troops departed from Kabul International Airport, marking the end of the twenty-year “War on Terror” between the US and Afghanistan. After the peace deal between former President Trump and the Taliban in February 2020, President Biden finally decided to pull the American troops out. In a press conference days after, he explained the motives behind his decision, saying that: “After twenty years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces…We gave [the Afghans] every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future.” Biden’s hasty move, criticized by many journalists and politicians, left the citizens of Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban, who rapidly took over the country after the removal of American troops. The Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic militia, are committing the same abuses they have been committing for decades. They are known for their harsh punishments, from chopping the hands off convicted thieves, to floggings for adultery, to even public executions for convicted murderers. Women especially have been targeted and repressed by the Taliban. They have been forcibly married, not allowed out of the house without a male escort, denied the right to an education, and forced to wear a hijab. The list goes on. The future of Afghanistan, now that the US has cut off military and most monetary support, is being disputed among many, but as of now, it is clear that a humanitarian rights crisis is unfolding. To truly understand why this crisis is unfolding and what the US has to do with it, it is necessary to know the history of Afghanistan, and more specifically, our history with Afghanistan.  

In the mid-nineteenth century, Afghanistan was caught in a power dispute known as “The Great Game” between Britain and Russia. Britain suffered a defeat in its first war with Afghanistan in 1842 but eventually gained much of Afghanistan’s territory by the 1860s. Britain gained control over the Afghan rulers and gave subsidies and weapons to them until 1921, when Afghanistan regained its political control. It is important to note that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, what we know as the modern state of Afghanistan was conceived. That can be attributed to Abdur Rahman Khan, the emir of Afghanistan, who created a centralized government and bureaucracy through tactics such as brutal internal wars, forced mass migrations, and economic incentives. He built a state where Pashtuns, the current largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, had authority, and where the only interpretation of Islam allowed was Sunni Islam. He passed his power to his son, Habib Allah, who began to establish more progressive policies. But generally, the monarchy remained more or less the same. 

In contrast to Khan’s conservatism, the vision of Afghanistan as a “multinational state with a progressive outlook on science and technology” found an advocate in an important Afghan figure, Mahmud Tarzi, who was previously exiled and brought back in the 1930s. Tarzi’s lifelong goal was to modernize the country within inclusive and progressive Islam. The failure of his reforms is largely attributed to British policies, although the largely illiterate and rural masses and the conservative elite and clergy are acknowledged as major contributors as well. The importance of Tarzi’s ideals and actions with his group of supporters is that they provide somewhat of a precedent for possible future progressivism in Afghanistan. To acknowledge the efforts of Afghans, hindered by world powers throughout their history to reform their ideals and policies, is to deconstruct the misconceptions we may have about Islam in the Middle East, and to reflect on the culpability of foreign occupations and interventions. 

The monarchical system in Afghanistan remained until the 1970s, during which time Mohammed Dauod Khan, attempted to modernize Afghanistan. Khan became the first president of Afghanistan. The USSR and the US were both trying to become involved with Afghanistan through building infrastructures and agriculture which funneled money to both superpowers during the 1950s and 1960s. Soviet imperialism over Afghanistan and the USSR’s invasion in the 1970s caused a lot of political unrest, in which Afghan guerrillas gained control of rural areas, and Soviet troops held urban areas. In 1978, Khan was overthrown by the PDPA, a Marxist-Leninist party, and the US began to fund and train anti-communist groups, the mujahideen. The US made a major misstep in supporting extremely reactionary groups without truly understanding how to deal with the conflict. They brought in Arab mujahideen from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who went on to form Al-Qaeda. Throughout this conflict, the US funded Pakistan, who, if indirectly, funded the foreign fighters allied with the mujahideen. In the 1980s, the Soviet puppet government was toppled, and in 1989, the Geneva Peace Accords were signed, stating that all Soviet troops were to leave Afghanistan. Both the US and the USSR mostly pulled out and stopped their funding to Afghanistan, and the country fell into chaos, with rival Afghan groups fighting for power. The US completely withdrew from the fighters it had trained and supported, similar to what has happened recently, and the resulting civil war led to the birth of the Taliban.  

In the 1990s, former mujahideen, many of whom were students disillusioned with the results of their victory, created a group called the Taliban, which took advantage of the war-torn state of Afghanistan and the weariness of its citizens by promising peace. They took over Kandahar first in 1994, and eventually the entire country. During this time, a new “Great Game,” a name revived by some journalists, arose. The West had a sudden strong interest in the Central Asia region because of its oil resources. A large American oil company, Unocal, had negotiated with the Taliban to create an oil pipeline running from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The Bush administration ignored the United Nation sanctions against the Taliban, and Unocal began the process of making the pipeline. The US wasn’t very interested in the atrocities being committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban until the attacks of September 11, 2001. The US, hoping to gain security of the pipelines through the Taliban, allowed Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to support the Taliban and had not condemned them until the War on Terror. In fact, one of the early foreign mujaheed fighters funded and trained by the US was Osama bin Laden, who created the terrorist group Al-Qaeda.

The Northern Alliance, an Afghan group who arose during the instability of the 1990s, backed by the US government, overthrew the Taliban in 2001. The US spent over five trillion dollars in the war with Afghanistan, and because they had little idea about how to instate a democratic government, most of the money fell into the hands of corrupt people, such as warlords. Now, the US has frozen the monetary assets in Afghanistan so as not to let it fall into the wrong hands. 

Throughout the US’ “War on Terror,” a main criticism has been their constant bombings, or at least lack of precision in their drone attacks. Starting in 1998, after suspecting that Bin Laden had been responsible for the attack in the East African US Embassy, the US sent about seventy cruise missiles to three suspected training camps, and ended up killing twenty-four people. Although Osama bin Laden was not killed, a nightwatchman was. The justification for the bombings has been called questionable. This pattern of bombings, drone strikes, and violence committed by the US continued for the next twenty years. In 2012, for instance, President Hamid Karzai called for American forces to leave Afghan villages and pull back to their bases after a US soldier killed sixteen Afghan civilians inside their homes. Though President Biden has withdrawn US troops and said that he will uphold the peace treaty, he is still planning to use the Air Force to “degrade the terrorists,” which can be inferred to mean drone warfare. 

Currently, aside from sending money directly through humanitarian aid groups, the means taken by the Biden administration are considered by many to be ineffective in safely helping Afghan refugees seek asylum here. Afghan refugees are allowed to come to America, but only on their own without the help of the US. This poses a problem, as they cannot safely get through Kabul Airport, which is now under Taliban control, and many do not have access to the internet. “The United States owes a unique duty to the people of Afghanistan given not only the events of the last year, but the last few decades in the region,” said Wogai Mohmand, an attorney for the Afghan Network for Advocacy and Resources Project. “The least our government can do is act in good faith in responding to this community-led effort to provide critical support to Afghans.” Many are hoping that the proposals and policies in the works to aid refugees will be approved by the government and that as many Afghans as possible can find refuge. 

From the Nixon administration, to Reagan, to Bush, to the Biden administration, and more, there have been many instances of unwanted foreign intervention, careless slip-ups, and unnecessary violence on the part of the US. Now, as the future of Afghanistan and Afghans is so uncertain, it is important for us to reflect on our past mistakes so that we do not make them again. Effort on our part is vital. From listening to and supporting Afghan activists and journalists, to actively spreading awareness, to donating to relief organizations, to making sure the government does its part, there are many ways for us to help make Tarzi’s progressive visions a reality.

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