By Michael Fredholm
Michael Fredholm is a historian and former military analyst who has published extensively on the history, defence strategies, security policies, and energy sector developments of Eurasia. He is the author of the book Afghanistan Beyond the Fog of War: Persistent Failure of a Rentier State (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2018), which describes the root causes of Afghanistan’s civil wars.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks shaped American politics for decades. In 2021, the Biden administration’s timetable for withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan was for domestic political reasons firmly tied to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The problem was, nobody thought to remind President Joe Biden that the Taliban government also had a 20th anniversary to consider: their previous expulsion from Kabul.
By early September 2001, the military situation in Afghanistan was comparatively stable. The Taliban had, with Pakistani support, occupied large parts of the country, although not 95 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory – a patently untrue claim that the Taliban had quickly convinced a timid international media without direct access to accept. The ex-mujahidin Northern Alliance, due to its foreign sponsors, remained in the north and in various inaccessible locations throughout the country. The Taliban held the major cities, but at least the non-Pashtun parts of the country remained vulnerable to Northern Alliance strikes and many of Afghanistan’s 325 districts had not seen any Taliban presence.
By this point of time, the Afghan wars had produced two main forces: the Pashtuns, represented by the Taliban, and their chief opponent, the Northern Alliance, which primarily consisted of Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Most formerly unaligned strongmen had chosen or been forced to choose one or the other of the two sides. Many had voluntarily adopted the name Taliban and ruled, at least nominally, in its name. Others, in particular those far away from major Taliban strongholds, had aligned with the Northern Alliance, if only to retain a modicum of autonomy within their own territory.
Then came the devastating 9/11 attacks, which shook the United States and indeed much of the Western world. Unlike the run-up to the Soviet intervention in 1979, the United States decision to invade Afghanistan was neither gradual nor agonizing. The Soviets had worried about possible future hostilities; the Americans understood that they were under direct attack and knew they had to strike back. This conclusion was shared by most of the world, and the United States received considerable moral and material support from practically all countries. Offers of support arrived from Iran, despite its previous hostility to the United States, and Russia, which by then not yet again had become the bogeyman of the Western world. The American decision to go to war was widely regarded as just. So just, in fact, that offers of support came well before any United Nations resolution on the issue, and neither the media nor most governments regarded this as odd. Moreover, for the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on 12 September 2001 invoked Article 5: ‘…an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against all’. A Coalition was rapidly formed to strike back against the Taliban government and Al-Qaida.
Open military force was first applied on 7 October, twenty-six days after the 9/11 attacks, when the United States and Britain launched the first of numerous air raids on Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e Sharif. This marked the formal declaration of war on the unrecognized Taliban government and the first combat activities of Operation Enduring Freedom. About a week after the first air raids, American and allied special operations forces deployed to Afghanistan. The serious fighting took place in the north and was carried out by the Northern Alliance, eventually with American air support assisted by Special Forces guidance on the ground. As soon as Coalition air power was deployed in support, Northern Alliance units quickly broke through the Taliban lines. On 13 November units of the Alliance moved into Afghanistan’s capital Kabul. U.S. personnel entered on the following day.
The war on the ground was mostly over before conventional Coalition troops entered Afghanistan, around 19 November. The last Taliban stronghold, Kandahar, surrendered on 7 December.
The successful application of intelligence and air power came to set a pattern for the Coalition’s future operations in Afghanistan. The Coalition’s war effort in Afghanistan long focused almost exclusively on kinetic targeting, that is, the identification and location of individuals suspected of militant activities so that they could be targeted by air strikes, Special Forces operations, or drones such as the Predator armed with Hellfire missiles. Since an insurgent operation may involve no more than a dozen fighters, and the insurgent leadership consisted of geographically separated networks of individuals, some of whom were based in another country (Pakistan) outside the area of operations, it was hardly surprising that from an intelligence point of view, the operation rapidly took on most of the trappings of counterterrorism. It became a war against enemy individuals instead of enemy formations. Indeed, many operations resembled policing more than warfare, and not only because some participating nations early on imposed rules of engagement that were more suited to law enforcement than the conditions of war. The focus of the intelligence operation became to identify and locate the perpetrators, individuals engaged in the insurgency, so that they could be targeted individually – an almost impossible task.
The wars in Afghanistan became focused on counterterrorism not only because that is how it was labelled (the ‘War on Terror’), but because there soon remained no easily recognizable enemy to fight. As noted, the conventional phase of the war was over before most Coalition troops ever set foot upon Afghan soil. The war was, in most respects, won before the troops arrived.
Without formations of enemy forces on the ground in Afghanistan, there was no longer any scope for conventional warfare. Accordingly, there was also no time to build up conventional intelligence on the area of operations. The war was accordingly reinvented as a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency (COIN) operation. Available intelligence assets were tasked to identify the insurgent support networks and, most importantly, the individual enemy leaders and the fighters still loyal to them.
The insurgents were relatively few in number. They were hard to locate, often hiding among the civilian population. Intelligence efforts accordingly became increasingly geared toward providing data for kinetic targeting. The acquisition of targeting data on individual insurgents became an overriding concern and most of the finite number of intelligence professionals and assets were allocated to such tasks. Few of either remained available for conventional intelligence work. Nobody had the time to ‘answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade’, in the words of three professional military intelligence officers.
The State- and Nation-building Project
Instead, the Coalition continued to pour money into Afghanistan. By the end of 2014, the United States estimated that it had already committed more funds to reconstruct Afghanistan, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it spent on sixteen European countries after the Second World War under the Marshall Plan. However, the Afghan government dependency on foreign funds never abated. From 2001 to 2021, the U.S. government spent $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society. The Department of Defense spent another $837 billion on warfighting. Neither amount included money spent on behalf of Afghanistan elsewhere, for instance as part of regular government operational expenditures, such as diplomacy and policing. In total, the U.S. government is estimated to have spent more than $1 trillion on Afghanistan-related costs.
From the viewpoints of both the international Coalition and the insurgents, the conflict in Afghanistan can be summarized as having consisted of distinct phases. In 2001-2005, the international forces followed the Light Footprint approach, which resulted in modest and insufficient foreign military and financial aid to the government of Afghanistan. The U.S.-led Coalition was from 2003 onwards also distracted by the Iraq War. In 2005-2009, a Taliban resurgence took place, largely as a result of the Light Footprint policy of previous years and the existence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. By then, foreign aid became increasingly used as a tool for short-term stabilization in response to Taliban activity, that is, patronage, instead of for much-needed long-term developments. As a result, few substantial developments took place even in the important agricultural, energy, and mining sectors. The years 2009-2011 saw a U.S. military and civilian surge, accompanied by a substantial increase in aid. However, again the foreign economic aid failed to have an impact on Afghanistan’s inefficient industries. Moreover, the surge was far too small to succeed in uprooting the Taliban insurgency, and Washington for political reasons chose to disregard the fact that the Taliban enjoyed safe havens in Pakistan. Another paradox was that the Taliban leadership ever since President Barack Obama’s announcement in late 2009 that he intended to pull out of Afghanistan knew that if they simply endured for a few years, their most dangerous enemy, the foreign military presence, would then withdraw.
Clericalism versus Secularism
Oddly, the United States soon after the expulsion of the Taliban government in late 2001 enabled the old alliance between Sufi orders and Islamic radicals of the Middle Eastern type to return to power. Secularism had been decisively defeated already in 1992, when the mujahidin government took power. By late 2001, secularism had few remaining proponents inside the country, and none with the power to include it in the new constitution of 26 January 2004, which states: ‘No law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.’ The few remaining secularists at the December 2003 loya jirga (grand assembly) attempted to change the country’s official name in the draft constitution from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the Republic of Afghanistan. However, this motion was crushed by the chairman, Sibghatullah Mujaddidi, a religious leader who refused even to put it to a vote since the petition was un-Islamic. Thanks to the wars waged under the banners of jihad, the alliance of Sufi leaders and Islamic radicals recovered all ground lost to more secular-minded governments up to 1992. It was thus unsurprising that a new official holiday was established in commemoration of 28 April 1992, the day when Sibghatullah Mujaddidi arrived in Kabul and proclaimed the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The constitution as well as the Political Parties Law made sure to ban parties that ‘pursue objectives that are opposed to the principles of the holy religion Islam.’ As a result, no political party was able to include secularism in its party programme. Under these conditions, there was little reason to expect a return to secular policies, nor the sudden emergence of an educated and secular-minded middle class in Afghanistan, regardless of how much foreign aid the international community poured into the country.
The Reconstruction Failure
At the time of the Taliban takeover in Kabul, numerous news commentators published articles that purported to explain the failure of the Biden administration to prevent the regime change in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, few commentators then remembered what was the real failure in the U.S. Afghanistan policy.
In the period from early 2002, when the Taliban movement temporarily had disintegrated and Afghanistan formally was ruled by the unratified transitional government that came out of the 2001 Bonn conference, until late 2004, when the first Afghan presidential election took place, there was a window of opportunity to fully remodel the structure of the Afghan state. By then, Afghanistan’s former institutional foundations had been compromised beyond repair. A federal system could have been introduced instead of yet another attempt to build a centralized government, the power of the clergy could have been overturned instead of enhanced, and a more accountable government could have been formed, with fewer opportunities for corruption and illegal appropriation of aid revenue. The United States might even have been able to pressure Pakistan into shutting down the Taliban and Al-Qaida bases and infrastructure on its territory, had it followed a carrot and stick policy instead of acquiescence in the face of Pakistani sensibilities. The United States did not hesitate to apply pressure to put its nominee in power in Kabul, and there is no doubt that sufficient foreign troops were in the country to enforce necessary changes. However, unlike its approach to Germany and Japan after the Second World War, two states that had been utterly defeated while following radical and aggressive ideologies, the United States never attempted to remodel the Afghan state. Exercising leadership always requires a degree of coercion, yet the Western powers preferred to follow the United Nations model of soft, not hard, hegemony. Accordingly little long-term progress took place. One reason was the U.S. administration’s then preoccupation with regime change in Iraq. Another was probably an excessive respect for what was perceived to be Afghanistan’s cultural and religious traditions. Either way, the window of opportunity eventually closed and, while post-war Germany and Japan developed into advanced economies with democratic institutions, Afghanistan muddled on as it had in the past. The losers were not the new Afghan elite in Kabul, or the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, but ordinary Afghans.
Prospects for the Future
Is there a risk that the current Afghan conflict will spill over into the neighbouring states? The Afghan civil wars always were a very real threat to the continued existence of the state of Afghanistan. Its Afghan participants did not, however, form a direct threat to Afghanistan’s neighbours, even though as in any war some potential for spill-over fighting always was there. During the wars against the Soviet Union, members of the mujahidin movement did not usually attempt to advance beyond their own territory, except on a number of occasions during the winter 1986-1987 when CIA- and ISI-funded Hezb-e Islami groups crossed the border to attack Soviet border guard posts on Soviet territory. However, at that time the Soviet Union was a party to the conflict and the American, British, and Pakistani intelligence services no doubt encouraged the attacks. For the same reason, Taliban leaders often stated that they did not wish to interfere in the internal affairs of other states. As for the Taliban movement, it never, neither in the 1990s nor in the twenty-first century, displayed any interest in activities, military or otherwise, outside the present borders of Afghanistan. With the exception of a few accidental bombings and artillery bombardments and the occasional gunfight between Afghan narcotics traffickers and the border troops of neighbouring states, the battles of the series of Afghan civil wars never spilled over national boundaries. The Taliban seizure of government is not likely to result in the Afghan Taliban imposing itself on neighbouring countries. However, the same would not necessarily hold true for foreign groups of Islamic extremists that may benefit from tacit Taliban support.
Moreover, a chronically unstable Afghanistan would cause problems for the neighbouring states. Afghan refugee waves may have to be handled, in addition to and beyond the large-scale labour migration out of Afghanistan which have been ongoing for decades. For this reason alone, Afghanistan has the potential to remain a source of terrorism and violence aimed at itself, the region, and the world beyond, in both the short and long term.
There were always significant difficulties attached to the dynamics of the Afghan state- and nation-building project. First, there was an inherent conflict between the multitude of regional and local ethnic identities and the state-imposed pashtunization ideology of most Afghan governments, including the Taliban. Second, there were contradictions between clericalism and secularism (democracy as well as Marxism) as used in the nation-building process. Third, there were contradictions between local versus global factors, the latter dramatically emphasized by the great power politics in which Afghanistan was often caught.
The persistent appeal of Islamic extremism was a global factor as well, and has not gone away. The return to power of the Taliban government in August 2021 resulted in mixed opinions among jihadists outside Afghanistan. Supporters of the Islamic State, which fights the Taliban, were evasive in their comments. On the other hand, Al-Qaida rejoiced. On 16 August, its supporters distributed, across multiple social media channels, the message that just as 9/11, 2001, marks a historic day for jihadists worldwide to remember, they must now recognize 8/15, 2021 as a momentous day, since the Taliban victory debunked the theories of peaceful and democratic change, and proved that Islamic law can only be established through armed jihad. While there is no reason to expect the Taliban government to go on the offensive outside the territory of Afghanistan, jihadists in other countries certainly will laud the Taliban takeover and take inspiration from it.
Business as Usual
When the old Taliban army on 25 September 1996 moved into Kabul, the internationally recognized mujahidin government (the Islamic State of Afghanistan) had already abandoned the city. When ex-mujahidin Northern Alliance units on 13 November 2001 advanced into Kabul, the Taliban government (which styled itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) had already withdrawn. When on 15 August 2021, the modern Taliban army drove into Kabul, the internationally recognized President Ashraf Ghani (of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) immediately fled the country. Clearly, nobody felt that Kabul represented anything worth dying for. As in every previous takeover, those who had the means left the country, while the rest mostly accepted the latest seizure of government by men who professed to be holy fighters in the cause of Islam. The takeover was anticipated, as was the flight of President Ghani, who merely behaved as every other Afghan head of government had done since 1996. Meanwhile, most Afghan military officers and strongmen stood down, waiting to see how the Taliban would behave. There was no intelligence failure, at least not in Afghanistan, but the political classes and news media of the Western world were nonetheless taken by surprise. Nobody can yet say with certainty, except in the broadest terms, how the resurgent Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will rule the country. In the Taliban government’s first press conference after takeover, broadcast in Pashto from the media centre in Kabul on 17 August and accompanied by a translation tweeted live from the Taliban’s Arabic Twitter account, their spokesman announced a general amnesty and declared that they would rule Afghanistan according to Islamic law but desired constructive relations with neighbouring countries in accordance with diplomatic rules and principles. Nor is it yet possible to predict how long it will take before Afghanistan’s recurring problems between the periphery and centre again will result in tensions and, perhaps, a new set of civil wars. To conclude, on the ground in Afghanistan the future looks bleak, but perhaps no bleaker than before 15 August.
 Washington Post, 14 November 2001.
 Schroen, First In, 351.
 Washington Post, 29 November 2001, 24 February 2002.
 Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn; Capt. Matt Pottinger; and Paul D. Batchelor, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, January 2010), 4.
 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, 30 July 2014, pp.4, 5.
 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction (Arlington, Virginia: SIGAR, August 2021), 1.
 Article 3, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Constitution of Afghanistan, (Ratified) 26 January 2004.
 Article 18, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Constitution of Afghanistan, (Ratified) 26 January 2004.
 Article 6, Political Parties Law (2005).
 Such arguments were raised at the time. See e.g., Carl Hammer (pseud.), Tide of Terror: America, Islamic Extremism, and the War on Terror (Boulder, Colorado: Paladin Press, 2003), 281, 297–303.
 Washington Times, 23 April 1987; Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin, Afghanistan: The Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower (Havertown, Pennsylvania: Casemate, 1992, 2001), 189–206.
 Taliban web sites, www.taleban.com, www.afghan-ie.com, since closed down; M. J. Gohari, The Taliban: Ascent to Power (Oxford: Oxford Logos Society, 1999), 117.
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