When the war in Afghanistan started, the purpose of the fight was clear: defeating the actors that made the attacks on America feasible. Even those without an active role should be punished for their cooperation with the violent Al-Qaeda group. This is where the war on the Taliban started, as they were known to harbor them. The attack on the Taliban in 2001 was quick and successful, the organization was physically removed and key actors fled to Pakistan. However, this was the easy part, the United States failed to deliver a proper alternative after their powerful attack left a power vacuum in the Afghan State. The United States used the so-called “light-footprint” approach, which essentially meant that military troops were only seen during violent military sweeps, reaffirming the bad image Afghans already had on foreigners interfering in their country. However, there was another key factor that contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the years following the successful eradication of the Taliban (Jones, 2010). The painful truth was that the Taliban were simply more dedicated and effective in integrating a successful institutional system in the Afghan countryside. Outside Kabul the government proved to be inapt to actually set-up public sector facilities for basic living needs as the government did not have real power outside of Kabul (Chesterman, 2002). These two factors contributed largely to the resurgence of the Taliban.
When the United States realized and acknowledged it hadn’t acted properly, it tried to do just that what previously had not been done accurately. The counterinsurgency strategy was focused on leaving the country with a more capable security system, so that another stronger power vacuum could be prevented even if troops would leave. This more active approach by the Obama Administration, in an effort to prevent further insurgency of the Taliban, proved to be toothless as the Taliban got the benefit of the doubt after many years of governmental misbehavior. Most Afghans were particularly charmed by the Taliban Justice system, which was less corrupt and more easily accessible than official Afghan courts (Farrell, 2018). It is the lack of these societal pillars that catalyzed the resurgence of the Taliban. When the majority of foreign troops in Afghanistan left the country in 2014 the vulnerability and the vast dependency of Afghan troops was clearly visible, what followed was a successful re-mobilization of the Taliban (Ibrahimi & Akbarzadeh, 2020). Back then IS started to manifest itself in Afghanistan too, however, ultimately they did not attain the necessary support to keep a proper footprint in the fragmented country. One of the main reasons: support for IS in Afghanistan was mainly driven by financial incentives rather than ideological ones. Moreover, the brutal governance caused healthcare centers and schools to shut down, without offering good alternatives (McNally et al., 2016). A further sign that providing primary public goods and services makes or breaks the support for, and success of a regime.
The silver lining could be stated as follows: After the initial U.S. sweep of the Taliban, the predatory Afghan government failed to deliver primary public services. Without having the power to ensure countrywide security, the Afghans lost their last hope in the Afghan government. And as foreign meddler, the U.S. missed its chance to set-up proper institutional pillars in a scattered country in need of real support. The Taliban offered both security and the necessary services, which boosted their resurgence in Afghanistan. When the United States realized they missed this essential step it was already too late; the faith of the Afghans faded, even if the COIN strategy initially seemed rather promising.
As Donald Trump pointed out: with the current weaponry systems, there is less need for American support on the ground. The United States is now able to interfere in this country without the need for the U.S. military to lose their life in the graveyard of empires. The lack of competition was one of the causes the Taliban could organize itself and regain territory in the South of Afghanistan. Supporting militias can be another effective way to undermine the control of dynamics of the Taliban (Martin, 2017). However, the use of drone attacks lacks the essential transparency that is necessary to be able to adhere to ethical standards. And the use of private military security companies (PMSC’s) probably will only increase violence as wealth should not enable the legitimate use of violence, otherwise we pave the way for a way bigger problem (McFate, 2017). As “the state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Malejacq, 2020), pursuing the use of PMSC’s undermines the goal of building a successful state.
The Americans were very successful in eradicating the physical presence of the Taliban, however, their endeavor to create a stable functioning government capable to withstand insurgency failed. The end result is that the Americans were very able to retaliate for the role the Taliban played in the disastrous event in September 2001. I understand that the Americans and international community wished they could provide lasting change in the unstable nation, not only to prevent further radicalization towards the West, but leave victims of the acts of war behind with a better life. Now, after years of fighting without a definite end, the effort proved to be unfruitful and rather reaffirmed the skeptic vision of Afghans on foreign invaders.
To end it all up in one sentence, a decision had to be made as it is now obvious that (too much) American presence isn’t helping the necessary state-building process in Afghanistan. If the further withdrawal of troops out of Afghanistan is another misstep is uncertain. However, nobody benefits from reconsidering and seesawing over and over again. Despite many missteps, American should not see it as a failure to finally leave Afghanistan, it would be a failure if the unnecessary fighting would continue for eternity without an end in sight.
Chesterman, S. (2002). Walking Softly in Afghanistan: The Future of Un State-Building. Global Politics and Strategy, 44(3), 37–47.
Farrell, T. (2018). Unbeatable: Social Resources, Military Adaptation, and the Afghan Taliban. Texas National Security Review, 1(3), 58–75.
Ibrahimi, N., & Akbarzadeh, S. (2020). Intra-Jihadist Conflict and Cooperation: Islamic State–Khorasan Province and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 43(12), 1086–1107.
Jones, S. G. (2010). In The Graveyard of Empires: America’s War In Afghanistan. W.W. Norton & Company.
Martin, M. (2017). Kto Kovo? Tribes and Jihad in Pashtun Lands (V. Collombier & O. Roy (eds.); Vol. 7, Issue 2006).
McFate, S. (2017). I Was a Mercenary. Trust Me: Erik Prince’s Plan Is Garbage. Politico, 8–11.
McNally, L., Amiral, A., Weinbaum, M., & Issa, A. (2016). The Islamic State in Afghanistan: Examaning its Threat to Stability. 1–17.