The US mission in Afghanistan has reached a tragic and chaotic end.
The US military left the country on August 30, a day ahead of schedule, ending a 20-year occupation and leaving Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban. When the last evacuation plane departed, it left at least 100,000 people, according to an estimate that could be eligible for accelerated U.S. visas.
A violent summer offensive had delivered victory to the Taliban on August 15, hours after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Taliban leaders took his place in the presidential palace and drove tens of thousands of people to the country’s borders. Others flocked to Kabul International Airport, where crowds fought to be part of the evacuations of foreign nationals and their Afghan allies.
Days of chaos at the airport were marked by a suicide attack on August 26 that killed as many as 180 people, including 13 U.S. troops. It was one of the deadliest attacks of the war, and the troops were the first U.S. servicemen to die in the country since February 2020.
The collapse of the Afghan government, after the United States spent billions on supporting it and the Afghan security forces, was a crushing and violent coda for the US military mission in the United States’ longest war.
That combat mission pursued four presidents who reckoned with American losses, a ruthless enemy and an often confusing Afghan government partner, as well as a nominal ally, Pakistan, who supplied and supported the Taliban while providing the militants with a safe haven.
How did the US withdrawal go?
In mid-April, President Biden announced that the United States had long ago completed its mission of denying terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan that all U.S. troops would leave the country by 9/11. Later, he moved the date up to Aug. 31.
Mr. Biden said that after nearly 20 years of war, it was clear that the U.S. military could not transform Afghanistan into a modern, stable democracy.
In response in July to critics of the withdrawal, the president asked, “Let me ask those who wanted us to stay: How many more? How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?”
The United States had planned to leave about 650 troops to secure its embassy in Kabul. But the sudden and shocking Taliban victory forced the embassy to a quick, panicked closure as staff shredded and burned sensitive documents before a temporary embassy was set up at Kabul airport.
With Taliban-armed men controlling the streets of Kabul and other cities, fear has crept into the capital and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
In Kabul, armed Taliban men have gone door-to-door in some neighborhoods, looking for anyone who had supported the government or the US effort. And despite public promises from Taliban leaders about a more moderate approach to governance, restrictions have been imposed on women, and the Taliban have cracked down on some independent journalists.
“This developed faster than we expected,” said Mr. Bitten in a speech on August 16, adding that he stood by his decision to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
Why did the United States invade Afghanistan?
Weeks after Al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, President George W. Bush announced that US forces had launched attacks on the terrorist group and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.
Bush said the Taliban, which at the time ruled most of Afghanistan, had rejected his demand to extradite Al Qaeda leaders who had planned the attacks from bases inside Afghanistan. He said he intended to bring Al Qaeda leaders to justice, adding, “Now the Taliban will pay a price.”
“These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base for operations and to attack the military capabilities of the Taliban regime,” the president said.
Even then, the president warned that Operation Enduring Freedom would involve “a protracted campaign like no other we have ever seen.”
In December 2001, Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, and other top executives fled to safety in Pakistan, a nominal US ally. US forces did not pursue them, and Pakistan eventually developed into a safe haven for Taliban fighters, who in subsequent years crossed the border to attack US and Afghan forces.
Inside Afghanistan, US troops quickly overthrew the Taliban government and crushed its fighting forces.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule
With the departure of the U.S. military on August 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under Taliban control. There is widespread fear of the future across the country.
In December 2001, the Taliban spokesman offered an unconditional surrender, which was rejected by the United States. In May 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to major combat operations in the country.
How did the mission in Afghanistan develop?
After overthrowing the Taliban, the United States and NATO turned to rebuilding a failed state and establishing a Western-style democracy, spending billions trying to rebuild a desperately poor country already ravaged by two decades of war, only during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and then during a civil war.
There were early successes. A pro-Western government was installed. New schools, hospitals and public facilities were built. Thousands of girls, excluded from education under the Taliban regime, went to school. Women who were largely confined to their homes by the Taliban went to college, joined the labor force, and served in parliament and government. An energetic, independent news media emerged.
But corruption was widespread, with hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction money stolen or wrongfully appropriated. The government proved unable to meet the most basic needs of its citizens. Often, its authority evaporated outside major cities.
In 2003, with 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the United States began shifting combat resources to the war in Iraq, which began in March of that year.
What happened on the battlefield?
Despite the presence of US and NATO troops and the Air Force, the Taliban rebuilt their combat capabilities.
In 2009, President Barack Obama began deploying thousands of troops to Afghanistan in a “wave” that reached nearly 100,000 in mid-2010. But the Taliban only got stronger and inflicted heavy losses on Afghan security forces.
In May 2011, a US Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in a complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he had lived for years near a military training academy. In June, Mr Obama announced that he would start bringing US forces home and handing over security duties to the Afghans by 2014.
At the time, the Pentagon had concluded that the war could not be won militarily and that only a negotiated solution could end the conflict – the third in three centuries involving a world power. Afghan warriors defeated the British Army in the 19th century and the Russian military in the 20th century.
Understand the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan
Who is the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including whipping, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origins and their record as rulers.
With the war in a stalemate, Mr. ended. Obama major combat operations on December 31, 2014 and went over to train and assist Afghan security forces.
Nearly three years later, President Donald J. Trump said that even if his first instinct had been to withdraw all troops, he would nevertheless continue to prosecute the war. He stressed that any troop withdrawal would be based on combat conditions, not predetermined timelines.
But the Trump administration had also been talking to the Taliban since 2018, leading to formal negotiations that excluded the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani.
Prior to the planned withdrawal in August, the Taliban’s summer-long military campaign had forced widespread surrenders and the withdrawal of besieged Afghan government forces. In many cases, they gave up without a fight, sometimes after intercession from village elders sent by the Taliban. At the same time, the number of civilian casualties rose to some of the highest levels of the two-decade-old war.
What about the peace talks last year?
In February 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban calling on all U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, although Mr. Biden would later extend that deadline. In return, the Taliban promised to sever ties with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State in Afghanistan, reduce violence and negotiate with the US-backed Afghan government.
But the agreement did not include any mechanisms to enforce the Taliban commitments. And the exclusion of the Afghan government from the deal strained its relations with the United States.
After the agreement was signed, the Taliban stopped attacking US troops and refrained from major bombings in Afghan cities. The United States reduced air support to government forces.
The primary goals of the 2020 agreement were that Afghan leaders and the Taliban should negotiate a political roadmap for a new government and constitution, reduce violence, and ultimately create a lasting ceasefire.
But the government accused the Taliban of murdering Afghan government officials and members of security forces, civil society leaders, journalists and human rights workers – including several women shot in broad daylight.
Due to their strong battlefield position and the US troop withdrawal, the Taliban maintained the lead in negotiations with the Afghan government, which began in September in Doha, Qatar, but eventually stalled. The Pentagon has said the militants did not keep promises to reduce violence or sever ties with terrorist groups.
Why were Afghan security forces unable to hold back the Taliban?
Military and police units in Afghanistan have been eroded by desertions, low recruitment rates, poor morale and theft of salaries and equipment from commanders. They have suffered high casualty rates, which U.S. commanders have said were not sustainable.
Although the United States has spent at least $ 4 billion a year on the Afghan military, a classified intelligence assessment presented to the Biden administration in the spring said that Afghanistan could largely fall under Taliban control within two to three years after the departure of international forces. .
The fall was much faster than that.
“Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said. Bitten and accused the military of shutting down weapons after two decades of American training.
When Taliban fighters took over provincial capitals, the government counterattack fought to retake a handful of bases and districts. Some former Afghan warlords mobilized private militias, while other Afghans joined voluntary militias, many of them armed and funded by the government.
But the Taliban still overtook a number of provincial capitals before moving into Kabul – a frightening development for many who believed they could build a life under the protection of their American allies.
When the Taliban first came to power, they said they wanted to ensure order and public security, and that they sought relations with other global powers, including Russia and China, in part to receive financial support.
Jacey Fortin, Carlotta Gall and Alan Yuhas contributed with reporting.