American Withdrawal & The Power Struggle in Afghanistan




On October 7, 2001, following the attack on the World Trade Center, the American troops landed in Afghanistan and started an offensive against the then government of Taliban. The United States of America and the United Kingdom were the initial allies and together they launched a military operation named “Operation Enduring Freedom” which initially started with aerial bombing, to reinforce the ground forces provided by the “Afghan Northern Alliance”. Later, other states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) joined hands to form the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), not only to rid Afghanistan of the menace of terrorism but also to bestow upon the war-torn country, the so called gift of “democracy”.

The initial attack by the Allied Forces was launched in the cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. The Taliban who had held their front against the ground forces of the Northern Alliance in the initial few weeks of the attack, could not withstand the aerial attacks by the American Apache Gunship helicopters and B-52 bombers and evacuated one city after another. Starting from the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, which was considered a Taliban stronghold, followed by Kabul, one city fell after another.

After the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001, Mr. Hamid Karzai was formally chosen to lead the government, in an Afghan grand council meeting in June 2002 and later elected President after the 2004 Presidential Elections. The Taliban’s fall from power led to an insurgency in the country and they vowed to fight until they had ousted every single person of the invading forces. ISAF started its ground operations in the beginning of 2003, to help Karzai expand his control beyond Kabul. The United States sent 8,000 troops to Afghanistan initially, to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which encouraged the other NATO countries to send their troops as well. The number of American led forces increased over the years. To date, around 50,000 combat troops are still deployed in Afghanistan.

The allied forces hardly sustained any losses during the initial phase of the Afghan war but as the ISAF started more invasive and intensive combat operations, their losses increased subsequently. In the almost thirteen year long war, the number of casualties sustained by the ISAF has increased to around thirty-five hundred, with more than thirty thousand injured. Why after the initial success of the offensive and after spending trillions of dollars, the so called “good war” turned bad, is due to many different aspects. Whether it was the complacency of the American think tanks, the trained personnel’s focus shifting towards the Iraq war, the unsystematic partial measures taken by the allied partners towards Nation building in Afghanistan, the unforeseen difficulties faced in training the Afghan Army and police force or the comparatively little amount of aid given to the Afghan government, consequently, the Taliban regrouped and became more confident over the years. The number of ISAF casualties hence started rising from 2005 onwards. 2010 saw the maximum number of fatalities incurred by the allied forces until last year.

Each year the Taliban launch a spring operation commencing April/May, which continue till the end of the summer season and later during winters, they retreat towards their safe-havens and hide-outs to re-group and plan next years’ strategy.  The Taliban’s attack methodology has been very basic, lacking sophistication and their usual style of attack so far was to carry out suicide attacks or placing road side bombs and detonating Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s). This years’ offensive, however, has seen a big change in the Taliban’s attack strategy and they, it seems, are making a grandiose effort to inflict huge losses on the enemy before the 13-year NATO combat mission ends. Not only are they hitting inside the capital but the attacks are executed in a planned and sophisticated manner. The following is a list of a few attacks carried out by the Taliban this year:

5-7-2014: Taliban set ablaze at least 400 oil tankers belonging to NATO forces in the outskirts of Kabul.

17-7-2014: Gunmen attack Kabul Airport which also houses the operational headquarters of the US led military coalition. The Kabul Airport has been regular target of the Taliban fighters but this attack was unusual in the sense that it involved a ground attack by the Taliban.

5-8-2014:  Major General Harold Greene, a senior officer with the international military command ISAF was killed and 15 others wounded when a man dressed in an Afghan army uniform opened fire with a machine gun at Camp Qargha, a British military training academy located outside Kabul. This was the most senior American official killed on any overseas mission since the Vietnam war. Also amongst the wounded was a German Brigadier General.

The NATO troop’s withdrawal which started in 2011 has been a haphazard process, but since it commenced with countries other than the U.S, with troop size being relatively smaller, the overall impact has not yet been felt. The U.S. President Barack Obama in a recent statement this year announced to withdraw all but approximately, 9800 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and eventually pull out the rest by the end of 2016. The Obama administration wants to get out of this expensive war which has guzzled billions and believes that Afghanistan must now solve its own problems. The Taliban, on the other hand have rejected the “peace agreement” which allows the U.S. to extend their stay beyond 2014 and have reiterated, that their fight will continue as long as even one American soldier remains in Afghanistan. In a bid to resurrect his image of being “America’s man” and to earn favours with the Taliban, Hamid Karzai, at the end of his political career, has refused to sign the peace agreement. It will be interesting to observe, when or if the new President of Afghanistan will sign the agreement and incur the wrath of the Taliban.

By facilitating the Presidential Elections this year, if the U.S. believes it has, by far solved most of Afghanistan’s problems then it is as far-fetched as it sounds. There has been a stalemate over the election results with threats of violence looming large. Although the U.S. sought a truce between the two Afghan Presidential contenders, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, lasting peace is still not on the cards. In fact the present volatile situation can escalate into an even ghastlier conflict compared to 1990’s. One of the reasons’ is the geo-political analysts’ tunnel vision, which does not accept Taliban as a reality. The international media has also played its negative role by doing a complete black-out of this years’ spring offensive and the Taliban are portrayed as cornered, but nothing can be further from the truth. The Taliban are not a perception. They are very much real. Denying this reality will only prolong Afghanistan’s suffering.

The Taliban’s initial rise to power was purely by chance, a movement started on the premise of peace; to rid Afghanistan of the menace of the warlords incessant fighting, after a power vacuum was created by the Soviet troop’s withdrawal from the country in 1989. The Taliban, unlike the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is basically a decentralized pressure group, were a proper organization with a centralized government, hence, their goals are clear and they will not rest until they have either taken back the government or have had some stake in it. Those who consider that the Afghan National Security Force (ANF) with their meager experience and high desertion rate, will shoulder the responsibility of countering a twenty year old resistance, are living in a fool’s paradise.

The Taliban, as evident by their recent attacks, have bounced back not only militarily but generally with an over-all new vision. The initial hard-liner shura members have all but gone. The new shura is mostly composed of a highly educated and professional lot, who are aware of the importance of education and the use of technology in the present times. They are ready to entrench themselves in the new political system, in fact, they consider themselves capable of forming a complete parallel government. Therefore, it is imperative that the U.S. and the World accept the ground reality and provide a concrete solution towards lasting peace in Afghanistan, instead of opting for a cosmetic one.

The U.S. however, it seems is either oblivious to this developing situation or have too much faith in their allies, India and Iran to take care of the Afghan-Pakistan woes. Especially India, whom General Leon Panetta referred to as the “lynchpin”  in the U.S.’s new Defense Strategy, which under diplomatic norms simply mean that they consider their partnership to extend beyond the region and to safeguard each other’s “global interests”. The U.S. has done billions of dollars investment on at least seven military bases in Afghanistan. Whom they consider leaving it to, after their withdrawal from Afghanistan, is quite obvious from General Panetta’s statement but it is highly preposterous to think that Pakistan will rest and accept India’s strategic and military involvement in Afghanistan. On the other hand, India has not only made huge investments but is also hiring trained mercenaries and deploying them in Afghanistan, which clearly shows their hegemonic designs in the region. They are pushing the whole region towards instability and war.

If the U.S. has learned anything at all from Iraq, they will not commit the same mistakes in Afghanistan. They must ponder over the wisdom of getting out of a “bad war” leaving the state of affairs as they presently are in the country. In particular, the idea of getting two nuclear capable countries in an awkward situation may not bode well for the region and which may lead to a series of proxy-wars. Therefore, the Think-Tanks of the civilized world and in particular the U.S. must sit together and decide a course of action and work out a power formula for Afghanistan, which is acceptable to all.


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is a Telecommunications Engineer and is part of the editorial team at PKKH. She can be reached at and tweets @NadiaWadud

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