Afghanistan: An Overview

Now that the U.S. has left Afghanistan, did we make a difference?

After 20 years, four U.S. presidents, over $2 trillion of U.S. expenditures, over 800,000 U.S. troops deployed, and 2,461 Americans making the ultimate sacrifice, the Biden administration announced on April 4, 2021 that they would maintain the Trump administration’s plan of ending U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Troops were slated to make the final retreat from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

Optimistic about the Afghan government’s ability to maintain order, the Biden administration started withdrawing troops in the first weeks of August 2021. With seemingly little understanding of 3,000+ years of complicated tribal relationships and disregard for skeptical intelligence reports, President Biden discounted the risk that the Taliban would be able to negotiate the forced surrender of essentially the entire nation. On August 15, 2021, Kabul and the government that had been slowly pieced together over the span of two decades fell to the Taliban, the group the U.S. initially toppled to gain control in 2001. 

The United States initially entered Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan and at the Pentagon. President George W. Bush sent troops in an attempt to kill Osama bin Laden (the terrorist leader behind the attacks) and expel Al-Qaeda (Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group) from the region. Because the Taliban refused to take sufficient action, the U.S. and Great Britain bombed Afghanistan, dismantling their hold on power, forcing a retreat, and cementing U.S. control. Eight months after 9/11, President Bush announced a new humanitarian and reconstruction effort to the U.S. occupation, likening it to the 1948 Marshall Plan after World War II. In an attempt to rebuild Afghanistan and forge a new and hopefully permanent order away from Taliban and extremist rule, the U.S. initially pledged $38 billion to the cause.

The Taliban are students of a strict form of Sunni Islam and promised their followers to instate their form of Sharia law (Islamic law) on Afghanistan once in power. Afghans worry that under Taliban rule, women’s rights will regress to the conditions of 20 years ago. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, women were not allowed to leave the house without a man, banned from schooling or working outside the house, and forced to wear burqas (most concealed Islamic veil). As Afghanistan’s future hangs in the balance, people are living in fear and dread a possible return to the old ways. Women are scared not only for their lives, but also for losing the progress that was made in the past two decades.

Only two days after the Taliban took control, over 20,000 Afghans flooded the Kabul Airport and swared the tarmac in hopes of escaping to safety. Few clung to the wings of departing airplanes for the slim chance of escaping the country, only to plummet to their deaths. The Kabul Airport has come to symbolize the desperation of the Afghans to escape the future under Taliban rule. 

While reflecting on the United States involvement in Afghanistan, it is hard not to think back to Vietnam. The United States spent years sending aid and troops worth billions of dollars to Vietnam. The fall of Saigon in 1975, which has become a symbol of American defeat, signaled the end of the Vietnam War. Thousands of Americans and Vietnamese troops were evacuated on helicopters. Sound familiar? 

The Taliban have now regained control of Afghanistan. It’s almost as though the United States was never there. Did we make a difference? Only time will tell…

Shariah is based on the Quran, stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and the rulings of religious scholars, forming the moral and legal framework of Islam. The Quran details a path to a moral life, but not a specific set of laws.

One interpretation of Shariah could afford women extensive rights, while another could leave women with few. Critics have said that some of the Taliban restrictions on women under the guise of Islamic law actually went beyond the bounds of Shariah.

The interpretations of Shariah are a matter of debate across the Muslim world, and all groups and governments that base their legal systems on Shariah have done so differently.  When the Taliban say they are instituting Shariah law, that doesn’t mean they are doing so in ways that Islamic scholars or other Islamic authorities would agree with.