YARDLEY, Pennsylvania — After 20 years, the longest war in American history finally came to an end earlier this year under the direction of President Joe Biden. However, many do not consider the ending a victory since the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is virtually erasing visible progress. Consequently, the origins of this decades-long intervention are muddied or unknown to many who have lost sight of the conflict’s beginnings back in late 2001.
How It All Began: A Timeline of 2001
Just two days before al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the anti-Taliban coalition leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush authorized the use of force on the perpetrators of 9/11 a week later. He intended to not only combat terrorism but also invade Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct. 7, led by militaries from both the U.S. and the U.K. The focus was primarily on striking the Taliban and al Qaeda.
By November, forces had severely weakened the Taliban with the losses of Taloqan, Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul and Jalalabad. A month later, intelligence officials believed al Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden — thought to be the ringleader of the 9/11 attacks — escaped into Pakistan from Afghanistan.
The United Nations spearheaded the Bonn Agreement on Dec. 5, which established “an international peacekeeping force to maintain security in Kabul,” ultimately prompting Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to flee Kabul, signifying the end of the Taliban regime. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda leaders took cover in the mountains.
Who Is the Taliban?
The Taliban is a relatively new terrorist organization with a history of fewer than 30 years. The name “Taliban” means “students” in Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. The original group of Taliban members primarily consisted of “peasant farmers and men studying” in Islamic religious schools.
After spreading through southern Afghanistan, the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. The group killed Afghanistan’s president and lashed out against religious minorities, women and political opposition members. The Taliban became a haven for al Qaeda to expand its network globally until the U.S. began its work to dismantle it post-9/11. This culminated with the killing of Bin Laden in May 2011.
Omar died in 2013; however, the Taliban didn’t admit it for another two years. Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansur became the second leader. In recent years, his refreshed organization has taken responsibility for a large number of attacks in Afghanistan.
Relationship Between Afghans and the Taliban
The Asia Foundation has been a U.S.-based nonprofit that found that roughly half of Afghans sympathized with armed oppositions groups like the Taliban in 2009. A decade later, that number dwindled to fewer than 14%.
The previous Taliban backing could be attributed to displeasure with public institutions and the desire for a solution. However, since this year’s Taliban takeover, tens of thousands have attempted to flee. The National Resistance Front in the Panjshir province, claims it continues to oppose the Taliban despite the region already under the group’s control.
How the Taliban Took Over
A question many wondered as the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan is how is this happening? The Taliban’s strategy has been simple. It started with overtaking smaller, rural areas with less pushback, and continued from there. According to one congressional report, northern areas of the country that “had resisted the Taliban when the group was in power in the 1990s” were unable to repeat that resistance.
A congressional source estimated that the Taliban took more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s districts in May and June 2021 alone. By July, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chair, Mark Milley, raised the estimate to more than half. Momentum increased for the Taliban in August when it moved to stronger economic and metropolitan areas. Most notably, the capture of Jalalabad and eventually the capital of Kabul signified a complete resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Biden, who ultimately followed through on the previous administration’s decision to withdraw troops despite the Taliban resurgence, stands by his decision. “As I said in April, the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden,” Biden said in a July briefing room statement. The U.S. also sought “to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives.”
Current Humanitarian Situation
Many often see Afghanistan as a dangerous place without considering the depth of the humanitarian crises that plague its people. Children are an especially vulnerable sector of the population. Sam Mort, UNICEF’s communications and advocacy chief in Afghanistan spoke with The Borgen ProjectInternational. She said that aid that helps pay for health workers and teachers was cut due to fear that it would fuel the Taliban government. Lack of aid has led to decreased access to food and medicine. What is available has been drastically up-charged.
Militarily, armed groups are reportedly recruiting children, which UNICEF and the U.N., continue to monitor closely. Children, especially ones without parents or economic and food stability, are far more likely to join the Taliban, which can fill many of those personal gaps. “Anyone that offers you an identity, and even a small salary, a steady meal and a purpose becomes quite attractive,” Mort said.
While visiting a children’s hospital in Afghanistan recently, Mort was reminded of the similarities she encourages everyone to remember exist between Afghan children and other children worldwide. “It is an accident at birth that these babies were born in Afghanistan and not in New York or London or Rome,” she said. “Every mother, every father wants the best for their child. I think if we can all remember that, you know what unites us is greater than what separates us.”
Mort calls on the rest of the world to show moral support for Afghans in addition to much-needed financial and physical supplies. After a year in Kabul watching as westerners flee, Mort and UNICEF are not going anywhere. “I can’t tell you the number of people … and they say, are you still here? You didn’t leave?” Mort said. “And I say, ‘No. UNICEF is staying.’”
– Jessica Umbro