While Afghanistan has been in the news for the current MHS students’ entire lives, the country has recently dominated headlines as the U.S. pulled troops out of Afghanistan weeks before the U.S. marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that followed. However, many students may not fully understand the situation with Afghanistan or the country’s history– topics which Social Studies Teachers Neil McCarthy and Andrew Hood help unpack.
“If you really want the answer, you have to go way back because what Afghanistan is has been in a civil war for over 40 years–my entire lifetime,” McCarthy said, highlighting just how long Afghanistan has been enduring conflict.
Beginning of U.S. Involvement in Afghanistan
On Sept. 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked by Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group headed by Osama Bin Laden, which believed in the idea of a defensive Jihad (holy war) against the Soviet Union at first and later the U.S. Two of the planes crashed into the World Trade Centers in New York, with another crashing into the Pentagon and the last crashing into a field as a result of the heroic efforts from the passengers to reclaim control of the plane.
9/11 left many Americans personally affected by the tragedy, including Hood.
“My father works for American Airlines and lost close pilot/attendant friends who perished in the plane crashes,” Hood said. “Knowing that my dad could have been in one of those crashes still haunts me today.”
In response to the attacks, the U.S. demanded that Afghanistan, which was harboring Al-Qaeda, turn over the group, but the demand was denied. As a result, the U.S. commenced airstrikes on Oct. 7, 2001.
McCarthy explained the reason for these strikes “was to find Al-Qaeda– that was the objective of that war. To rebuild the society into a modern democracy, that kind of came later; that wasn’t in the initial bill from congress.”
On Dec. 9, 2001, a military organization known as the Taliban, which had a foothold in Afghanistan at the time, surrendered its final province. The Taliban was not defeated, however, as the group still lived on and continued to wage a guerilla war in Afghanistan with support from China, Russia and especially Pakistan.
Who are the Taliban?
As a fundamentalist Muslim religious-political movement with a militia, the Taliban took control of nearly all of the country in 1996 when it took the capital, Kabul. The Taliban was formed in 1994 and quickly swept through the country following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the subsequent rapid collapse of the communist government in Afghanistan.
The “Taliban,” which means the “students,” was centered in the Kandahar province in the south of Afghanistan and gained popularity throughout the country on promises to bring peace and make Islam the heart of Afghanistan.
The Taliban, however, was only recognized as the real Afghanistan government by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
Life in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was based on a harsh interpretation of the Quran as well as the whims of local generals. The former Afghan president, Mohammad Najibullah, had sought refuge at a protected UN compound, but the Taliban overpowered it and killed him, later publicly hanging his body near the presidential palace.
The Taliban made life especially strict for women, who weren’t allowed to go to school after 8 p.m. or hold most jobs. They were also forced to wear burqas, an item of clothing that covers the body from head to toe, in public and travel only when accompanied by a male blood relative. Women could also be punished for appearing in public with a man to whom they were not related. If married and outside with a non-relative male, death was the punishment.
The Years of U.S. Occupation
Despite the U.S. toppling the Taliban regime, the group managed to live on.
“The problem is that the Taliban never went away, and we almost took out the Taliban back in 2001,” McCarthy explained. “We had them on the run, including Al-Qaeda, but sadly we let Osama Bin Laden kind of get away too fast. He escapes, and he got into Pakistan, and so on, and so did many of the Taliban, which allowed them to regroup.”
In the following years, the U.S. attempted to install a stable democracy in the country as well as improve the infrastructure and fund schools.
On June 25, 2021, President Joe Biden met with the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, to discuss U.S. support for the country. In a White House press release, The U.S. said it would continue “sustaining development assistance to support a secure, stable, unified, democratic and self-reliant Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.”
But Hood explained why a democratic government failed.
“In my limited perspective, I believe that the U.S.-supported Afghan government fell so quickly because the U.S. sought to create a government that reflected its western liberal democratic values rather than helping the Afghan people create a government that worked for them,” Hood said, adding, “If they had been more receptive to Afghan needs and did not promote corrupt officials to positions of power, then maybe the country would have resisted the Taliban due to a motivation to preserve their chosen government, economy and culture.”
On Feb. 29, 2020, the Doha agreement was signed between then-President Donald Trump and the Taliban.The U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops within 14 months if the Taliban promised to never harbor terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda, and to participate in future talks with the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government. President Biden chose to follow this agreement, and by Aug. 31, 2021, the U.S. had completely evacuated the country.
As the U.S. pulled out, the Taliban began a rapid offensive, taking Kabul on Aug. 15, only eight days after seizing its first provincial capital.
Afghans who had helped the U.S. during its time there, such as translators, were left behind. The Kabul airport was filled with many Afghans trying to flee the country, and the president of the former government in Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, fled to the United Arab Emirates.
In reference to those who had collaborated with the U.S. and were left behind, McCarthy said, “But all the people that helped us on the ground in Afghanistan, don’t they deserve our help– those translators, people that opened up schools, that made us look good, like the heroes? Now we’re gone; those people are gonna get sliced. Blood is on our hands, and it looks terrible.”
The Pentagon predicted that in six months after U.S. withdrawal the Taliban would take power. The group ended up doing so before the U.S. even fully pulled out. This rapid collapse surprised many, and McCarthy explained why.
“You would think that it shouldn’t have happened for so many reasons. First off, we were there for 20 years,” he said. “We’re the most powerful country in human history, and that’s not boasting; that’s just an objective fact. Militarily, economically, politically, the U.S. is extremely powerful, and we spent trillions of dollars in that war in Iraq. You’d think our money, our political might, military might, could’ve done something with a country like Afghanistan.”