The longest war in American history is technically over. It ended when the U.S. and its coalition allies marked the official conclusion of their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014. But with the goal of stabilizing the country unachieved, plans for an exit of the NATO-led forces have been put off. The remaining 15,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan — 8,300 of them American — support a government that faces intensifying attacks from the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalists who once ruled the country. A departure of the coalition would leave a weak Afghan military vulnerable to defeat at the hands of its tenacious enemies.
U.S. President Donald Trump in August recommitted the U.S. to the fight in Afghanistan, and officials said roughly 4,000 additional American forces would deploy there. Since the Afghan military officially became responsible for security in 2014, conflict in the country has escalated. The radical group Islamic State established a presence in the country’s east and has claimed credit for terrorist attacks in the capital Kabul. The larger threat is the resurgent Taliban, which has expanded its territorial reach. Afghan and U.S. officials have expressed increasing concern over evidence that Russia may be arming the group; Russian officials have denied it. About a tenth of Afghanistan’s districts are under insurgent control, and another third or so are contested. Civilian casualties rose to 11,418 last year, a record since the United Nations began tracking them in 2009. More than 660,000 people fled their homes because of the conflict in 2016, also a record and a 40 percent increase from 2015. The coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization provides training and advice to the Afghan military, which has been hampered by insufficient air power and heavy combat losses and desertions. Additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan are part of a counter-terrorism force.
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 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. In 2001, after the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his group’s Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. 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 NATO. In 2009, U.S. President Barack 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 in Pakistan, led Obama to start winding down the American troop presence. Doubts that the Afghan military could stand on its own prompted him to leave the last of them in place when he turned the presidency over to Trump in January. An estimated 165,000 people been killed in the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Efforts to organize peace talks have stalled, with the Taliban saying it wouldn’t negotiate until all foreign forces leave the country.
Some commentators have argued that the war in Afghanistan can’t be won and that the U.S. and its allies should withdraw rather than continue to invest money and lives into it. Others say that they shouldn’t just walk away after such a commitment. They argue that, with help, the Afghan government can contain the Taliban and prevent the resurgence of al-Qaeda. The planned increase of U.S. troops, they say, will show an American commitment to stay in the country and eventually could prod Taliban fighters to the negotiation table.
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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