- For the Soviet invasion and war, 1979-89, see Soviet-Afghan War. For politics and society, see Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan War is the NATO operation in Afghanistan, 2001 to the present, to destroy the Taliban and prevent the emergence of a base for radical Islamic attacks on American interests. President Barack Obama has declared it to be the central front in the war on terrorism and has ordered a buildup of American troops to fight a stubborn insurgency led by the Taliban. NATO is supporting the effort through the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, under U.S. command. The president since 2002 is Hamid Karzai, known as corrupt and incompetent.
"Operation Enduring Freedom" easily defeated the Taliban in late 2001 and it seemed the war was over quickly. But the Taliban regrouped, especially in the southern provinces, with sanctuaries inside neighboring Pakistan in remote areas where the government of Pakistan had little authority. By 2003 the insurgency in the south was in operation, funded by opium production. Important factors for the return of insurgency include the initial mistakes made in 2001; radical Islamic support from Pakistan; weaknesses of the Hamid Karzai government, especially its feeble and corrupt national army and police; the question of legitimacy and offenses to traditional tribal and Islamic values and beliefs; and, finally, the extent to which NATO forces became part of the problem by angering the tribes. The insurgency controlled numerous areas and engaged in terror attacks on civilians and guerrilla warfare against American and NATO forces. Al-Qaeda terrorists--the only Arabs in Afghanistan--had been welcomed by the Taliban in 1999 and built there bases there. They have been largely destroyed or fled to Pakistan, according to the U.S. Army, having fewer than 100 people left in Afghanistan.
In Aug. 2009, General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the Afghan government was riddled with corruption and NATO was being undermined by tactics that alienate civilians. He called the Taliban insurgency "a muscular and sophisticated enemy" that uses modern propaganda and systematically reaches into Afghanistan's prisons to recruit members and even plan operations. McChrystal alerted Washington that he urgently needs more forces within the next year; without them, he warned, the eight-year conflict "will likely result in failure."American policy was increasing set by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, originally appointed by President Bush in 2006 and reappointed by President Obama in 2009. Gates fired the commander General David McKiernan in May, 2009, replacing him with McChrystal. Vietnam. However liberal Democrats in Congress will not try to block Obama's proposals. Most conservatives, on the other hand, see victory in Afghanistan as a vital national goal and approve the new strategy, while voicing objections to the 18 month deadline.
From the mid-1990s the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden with his Al-Qaida band of Arab terrorists. Bin Laden provided both financial and political support to the Taliban. Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida group were charged with the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998, and in August 1998 the United States launched a cruise missile attack against bin Laden's terrorist camp in southeastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden and Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the September 11, 2001 attacks attacks against the United States.
Following the Taliban's repeated refusal to expel bin Laden and his group and end its support for international terrorism, NATO, under U.S. command began a military campaign on October 7, 2001, targeting terrorist facilities and various Taliban military and political assets within Afghanistan. Under pressure from U.S. military and anti-Taliban forces, the Taliban disintegrated rapidly, and Kabul fell on November 13, 2001.
Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban met at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Bonn, Germany in December 2001 and agreed to restore stability and governance to Afghanistan--creating an interim government and establishing a process to move toward a permanent government. Under the "Bonn Agreement," an Afghan Interim Authority was formed and took office in Kabul on December 22, 2001 with Hamid Karzai as Chairman. The Interim Authority held power for approximately 6 months while preparing for a nationwide "Loya Jirga" (Grand Council) in mid-June 2002 that decided on the structure of a Transitional Authority. The Transitional Authority, headed by President Hamid Karzai, renamed the government as the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan (TISA). One of the TISA's primary achievements was the drafting of a constitution that was ratified by a Constitutional Loya Jirga on January 4, 2004
In late 2003, the Joint Chiefs designated Lt. Gen. David W. Barno as the new commander of American forces in Afghanistan, He adopted a counterinsurgency strategy, requiring coalition forces to work closely with Afghan leaders to stabilize entire regions, rather than simply attacking insurgent cells. Because the Pentagon insisted on maintaining a "small footprint" in Afghanistan and because Iraq was a higher priority conflict, Barno was given only 20,000 troops. As a result, battalions with 800 soldiers were trying to secure provinces the size of Vermont. Coalition forces were thinly spread across the mountainous land, leaving much of Afghanistan vulnerable to enemy force increasingly willing to reassert their power. On the positive side, the pairing of small Special Operations Forces teams with Afghan militias, which, backed by laser-guided weapons, drove the Taliban from power.
There are in 2009 three entirely separate insurgencies; they operate independently.
The strongest is the "Quetta Shura Taliban" (QST) headed by Mullah Omar. They fled Afghanistan after 2001, and operate from a sanctuary in the Pakistani city of Quetta. It has created an elaborate shadow government known as the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," which capitalizes on the Afghan government's weaknesses. They install 'shari'a' [Islamic law] courts to deliver swift and enforced justice in contested and controlled areas. They levy taxes and conscript fighters and laborers. They claim to provide security against a corrupt government, ISAF forces, criminality, and local power brokers. They also claim to protect Afghan and Muslim identity against foreign encroachment. The QST has been working with considerable success to control Kandahar and its approaches.
Second is the "Haqqani network" (HQN), active in southeastern Afghanistan. It draws money and manpower from Pakistan, Gulf Arab networks, and from its close association with al Qaeda and other Pakistan-based insurgent groups. Al Qaeda's links with HQN have grown, raising fears that expanded HQN control could allow extremist movements to re-establish safe-havens inside Afghanistan.
Third is the "Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin" insurgency, which maintains bases in three Afghan provinces and in Pakistan. Led by the former Mujahideen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, it aims to negotiate a major role for itself in a future Taliban government, and meanwhile controls smuggling routes in the east.
The rebels in the southern provinces come from the Pashtuns tribes, which form 44% of the population. Only a minority of Pashtuns support the rebels. The Taliban have a significant presence in many Pashtun villages, as well as a sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan. The number of armed insurgents has grown from 3,000 in 2006 to 15,000- 20,000 in 2009. They are locals who know the hiding places in the extremely difficult terrain, and receive protection support from some Pashtun tribes.
The Afghans have a 2500 year tradition of strongly distrusting --and fighting--armed outsiders.
The Obama Administration has made the war a high priority; indeed Obama sharply criticized the war in Iraq because for so long, he said, it diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan. In September 2009, the Pentagon pushed back against liberal Democrats who oppose sending additional combat troops to Afghanistan, telling Congress that success would probably require more fighting forces, and certainly much more time. Washington is debating the new report by Gen. McChrystal, the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who believes a properly resourced counterinsurgency war means more forces, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan people and to the development of a strong Afghan government capable of defending its own country. Some 4,000 more American trainers will arrive by November, bringing the American troop level to 68,000.
More than 108,000 NATO troops are serving in Afghanistan in September 2009: 64,500 from the United States, 9,000 from Britain and 34,500 from other nations. In all, 1,386 troops have been killed. NATO deaths include 830 Americans, 214 British, and 130 Canadians; 22 other countries that have sent forces to Afghanistan have suffered deaths among their troops.
Debates are underway in many countries regarding how long the troops should stay. The Dutch, with 1,770 solders there, have yet to decide whether they will pull out in 2010 or redeploy from the country’s perilous south. A debate is also under way in France, which has 3,160 troops engaged. Germany has 4,000 troops based in the Kunduz region. Poland, which has 2,000 troops deployed, seems determined to keep them there despite the sour mood back home. Spain has announced it will send 220 more troops, for a total of 1,000.
Weaknesses of the government
The pro-Karzai Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara Shiites and Uzbeks that form the ruling coalition are not united, and the government they dominate is extremely weak and poverty-stricken. The Afghan government controls only 30% of the country. The country is resource-poor -- there is no oil--and the only rich resource is opium poppies. There is no educated base for a competent bureaucracy, and the army is little more than an amateur collection of tribal militias. 90% of the soldiers are illiterate, making them very hard to train to modern standards.
Democrats in Congress, led by Michigan Senator Carl Levin demand accelerated efforts to train and equip Afghan security forces before there is any more deployment of American troops. Levin demanded new goals to be established for Afghan security forces in terms far exceeding the capabilities of the Afghans. The army, he said, should grow to 250,000 troops by the end of 2012, and the police to 160,000 officers by that date. The current over-optimistic targets are 134,000 army troops and 96,000 police officers by the end of next year. The luke-warm Congressional Democrats are countered by Republicans, led by Senator John McCain, who strongly supports the Obama position. McCain insists that more troops are "vitally needed" and that any delay in ordering more combat forces to the fight would put American lives at risk.
- Franks, Tommy. American Soldier (2004), memoir of US commander in 2001-2
- Jockel, Joseph T. and Joel J. Sokolsky. "Canada and the War in Afghanistan: NATO's Odd Man Out Steps Forward." Journal Of Transatlantic Studies 2008 6(1): 100-115 online in EBSCO
- Jones, Seth. In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (2009) excerpt and text search
- Rashid, Ahmed. Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2009), blames Bush for a weak response to the need for force. excerpt and text search
- Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army. The United States Army in Afghanistan: Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (October 2001-March 2003) online, 44pp; brief official history
- United States Special Operations Command. History: 1987-2007 (2007) online, pp 87-112 on Afghanistan.
- "COMISAF Initial Assessment" (McChrystal Report) Aug. 30, 2009
- articles on Canadian forces
- news articles from New York Times
- Bob Woodward, "McChrystal: More Forces or 'Mission Failure Washington Post Sept 21, 2009
- Thom Shanker, "Military Chief Suggests Need to Enlarge U.S. Afghan Force," New York Times Sept. 16, 2009
- Judy Dempsey and Ian Austen, "Many Allies of U.S. Share Pain of Afghan War’s Toll" New York Times Sept. 16 2009