Afghanistan's War

By | Updated Oct 5, 2016 5:41 PM UTC

The longest war in American history is technically over. It ended when the U.S. and its NATO allies marked the official conclusion of their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014. But with the goal of stabilizing the country unachieved, plans for a U.S. exit have been delayed. The remaining 13,200 foreign troops in Afghanistan — 9,800 of them American — support a government that faces intensifying attacks from the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalists who once ruled the country. A peace deal conceivably could pacify the country. But in the absence of one, a departure of foreign troops would leave a weak Afghan military vulnerable to defeat at the hands of its tenacious enemies.

The Situation

With the Afghan military officially responsible for the country’s security, the conflict has escalated. The Taliban has expanded its territorial reach, controlling about 9 percent of Afghanistan's districts, with another 26 percent at risk of falling. The number of internally displaced people increased almost 80 percent in 2015, and more than 200,000 Afghans fled the turmoil for Europe, according to the United Nations. Similar trends have continued in 2016. Doubts that the Afghan military, hampered by insufficient air power and heavy combat losses and desertions, would be prepared to stand on its own prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to slow the timetable for exiting Afghanistan three times. In July, he changed his plan to keep the U.S. force at its current strength through most of 2016, with about 5,500 troops staying into 2017. Instead, he announced, about 8,400 will remain. Efforts to organize peace talks have stalled, with the Taliban, which has experienced internal rifts, saying it wouldn't negotiate until all foreign forces leave the country. Meanwhile, the persistent insecurity and low levels of economic growth have fed political opposition to the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

Sources: ISAF, U.S. Department of Defense, Brookings Institution

The Background

In 1989, the Soviet military pulled out of Afghanistan, after a decade-long occupation that had made the country a front line in the Cold War. The U.S., which actively supported the Soviets’ opponents, including radical Islamist factions, also disengaged.  Bloody chaos followed until the Taliban seized the capital, Kabul, from the feuding warlords who had all but leveled it. The Taliban imposed stern theocratic rule and gave the terrorist group al-Qaeda a base for training and for launching operations. After the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered a U.S. invasion when the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. When Bin Laden and the Taliban leadership fled, the U.S. mission morphed into a nation-building undertaking — but with limited military resources, as the U.S. focused on a separate war in Iraq. Eventually, more than 50 nations joined a coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 2009, Obama ordered a “surge” in forces that reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011. Military commanders reported progress on the ground, but war fatigue at home, especially after the killing of Bin Laden, led Obama to seek to wind down the American troop presence. The U.S. has spent an estimated $680 billion on the Afghanistan war. About 149,000 people have died in the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to one study.

The Argument

Some U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers think it’s time to bring all the troops home. They fear getting drawn further into the fighting if the Kabul government falters. Others say that the U.S. shouldn’t just walk away after such a commitment of lives and money. They argue that, with help, the Afghan government can contain the Taliban and prevent the resurgence of al-Qaeda. Both sides point to Iraq, where the government forced the U.S. into a total withdrawal in 2011. The rise of Islamic State there prompted a return of U.S. forces three years later. The intervention began as a training and bombing mission, but noncombat troops have been killed and the military has deployed special forces. The Iraq experience can stand as a reminder of the perils of a complete pullout — or of the reasons for getting out before the bottom drops out.

The Reference Shelf

  • A report by the UN Secretary-General detailed the challenges facing Afghanistan.
  • A report by the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction includes a status report on security in the country.
  • The U.S. Congressional Research Service reviewed post-Taliban governance, security and U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
  • Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, prepared a four-volume report and analysis of the evolving conflict in Afghanistan.
  • Two Rand Corp. analysts, Seth G. Jones and Keith Crane, evaluate how the U.S. should manage the challenges accompanying the reduction in U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Terry Atlas contributed to the original version of this article. 

First published April 1, 2014

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