How the US lost the plot in Afghanistan
In some ways, the real war began after 2009, as the US forces drew down from Iraq. The result was a carrots and sticks approach; the swelling to over 60,000 US troops in Afghanistan (with another 30,000 committed during the “surge”) coupled with greater economic assistance to Pakistan
After two decades, United States (US) President Joe Biden has announced the end of the US’s military mission in Afghanistan by August 31. This decision was not unanticipated, even if the timing and extent of the drawdown were deliberated until the last minute. Even now, the details of US military assistance to Afghanistan and the presence of regional intelligence and counterterrorism assets remain uncertain.
The US was initially motivated after the 9/11 attacks to defeat al-Qaeda, then based in Afghanistan, and ensure that the Taliban regime could no longer harbour international terrorists. The subsequent intervention resulted in over 2,400 US military deaths, some 20,000 US troops injured, and over $776 billion spent between 2001 and 2019 according to the Pentagon. Although al-Qaeda was diminished and Osama bin Laden killed, the Taliban has returned and shows little intention of renouncing violence or reforming its core ideology.
The US misadventure in Afghanistan did not necessarily have to end this way. The initial US troop commitment after 2001 was small, and despite important military engagements in Nangarhar and Paktia provinces, the 2003 intervention in Iraq soon diverted resources. With only 8,000 troops on the ground, the US began focusing on reconstruction while delegating more security responsibilities to allied North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. After 2006, Washington’s relations with allies and the Afghan government grew strained amid a Taliban resurgence.
In some ways, the real war began after 2009, as the US forces drew down from Iraq. The result was a carrots and sticks approach; the swelling to over 60,000 US troops in Afghanistan (with another 30,000 committed during the “surge”) coupled with greater economic assistance to Pakistan. The focus turned to east of the Durand Line. These years saw fighting between NATO and Pakistani forces at Salala, intensified violence along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad.
But rather than the US pressing its advantage, the 2011-2013 period marked another period of transition. After bin Laden’s killing, President Barack Obama announced the beginning of a troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan negotiations restarted, former president and peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated by the Taliban, and Pakistan boycotted the second Bonn Conference. By 2013, the US and NATO handed over primary security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and the US military limited itself to training and special operations missions. This period also saw a focus on decapitation strikes, including that of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour near Quetta in 2016.
Although Donald Trump initially announced a redoubling of efforts in 2017, amid increasing suicide bombings in Kabul and the growing profile of the Islamic State, he subsequently reversed course, indicating his preference for a US withdrawal before the 2020 elections. That year, the US signed an agreement with the Taliban and facilitated intra-Afghan negotiations.
In hindsight, a number of conclusions can be drawn. The first is that, other than the period between 2009 and 2012, the US was unwilling to make major security commitments, especially at times when it held the initiative. The distraction of Iraq, wasteful aid efforts, and hasty transfers to NATO and the ANSF proved complicating rather than complementary.
Secondly, strategic decisions were held hostage to political timelines – notably the US presidential elections in 2012, 2016, and 2020 – although such considerations cannot be completely circumvented in a competitive democracy.
A third was that the adverse role of Pakistan, which harboured the Haqqani Network, Quetta Shura, and al Qaeda leadership, was never fully acknowledged due to logistical necessities (particularly given fraught US relations with Iran and Russia), concern about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and the belief that the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) could be cajoled or coerced into cooperation. There was also a good deal of wilful ignorance on the part of Washington when it came to Pakistan, although 20 years of bitter experience have certainly left an unfavourable imprint.
For India, the writing on the wall was apparent by 2018, when Trump’s reversal confirmed that a complete US withdrawal was only a matter of time. India is among Afghanistan’s largest donors, trade partners, and capacity-builders but its efforts remain contingent upon local security. The conditions are adverse. An Indian security presence on the ground is politically untenable (and undesirable for Kabul), while India’s geographical access is limited except via air, Iran, or possibly Central Asia.
Although the US was initially discouraging of an Indian role in Afghanistan, challenges of coordination remained even after it changed tack. For example, India’s attempts at establishing lines of communication were complicated by US-led sanctions against Iran and Russia, and the provision of Russian equipment to Kabul by India did not align with US military assistance.
With all these considerations in mind, the near future will necessitate economic and technical assistance insofar as local conditions allow; military assistance that could include further equipment and training; coordination with international partners from Washington to Tehran to Moscow; and outreach to an ever widening spectrum of Afghan political leaders as the Taliban’s resurgence continues. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum. A US withdrawal spells a period of certain turbulence for India’s regional environment.
Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director of ORF-America
The views expressed are personal