The United States invaded Afghanistan 19 years ago today, sparking the nation’s longest-running war that has cost tens of thousands of lives and the U.S. about $2 trillion. While the U.S. originally ousted the Taliban as part of a broader anti-terrorism campaign, the Taliban and other militants have waged a bloody and arguably successful insurgency for nearly two decades. Despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid, and years of state-building and counterterrorism operations obscured by mission drift and government disinformation, Afghans continue to suffer a bloody civil war even as the Taliban meet with the Western-backed government for historic peace talks in Qatar.
Deadly airstrikes and bombings have punctuated the fragile and slow-moving peace negotiations since they began in mid-September after months of delay. On Monday, a suicide bomber targeted the convoy of the governor of Afghanistan’s Laghman province, killing eight people and injuring dozens more, including civilians and children. Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Taliban and Islamic State militants are active in the area, according to the Associated Press.
U.S. troops remain on the ground in Afghanistan, and their lingering presence gestures toward the broader reality of US interventionism, militarism and occupation around the world.
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“While people in this country do not feel the direct physical effects of these wars, every bomb dropped represents millions of dollars less for our schools, health care, affordable housing, public transportation, physical infrastructure, and a myriad of other social services desperately needed in a time of pandemic and severe economic recession,” reads a statement released Tuesday by the Chicago Committee Against War and Racism.
Meanwhile, 19 years of U.S. occupation clearly hasn’t toppled the Taliban. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies the Afghan conflict, says the Taliban remain strong both politically and on the battlefield. The Taliban are expected to use their capacity for violence as leverage at the negotiating table despite a peace deal with the Trump administration and international calls for a ceasefire.
“The war in Afghanistan is not stalled, the Taliban is slowly but surely winning,” Felbab-Brown said in an interview. “It’s ascendant, it’s steadily chipping away at government territory, it has capacity of creating all sort of forms of insecurity.”
Civilian casualties peaked years after the U.S. invasion, with more than 10,000 civilians killed or injured each year since 2013, including hundreds killed in U.S. airstrikes. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 civilians have been maimed or killed since 2010.
Analysts say the Afghan government propped up by the U.S. remains disorganized, corrupt and unable to control much of the countryside, where the Taliban control large swaths of territory. The country’s economy is now largely dependent on U.S. and international aid. Afghan government officials and their security forces, trained and heavily funded by the U.S. to fend off terrorists and maintain stability, continue to suffer constant attacks and struggle to hold territory and defend population centers, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
While the U.S. forces have not suffered casualties since striking a controversial peace agreement with the Taliban in February, more than 2,400 U.S. troops have lost their lives in the course of the war in Afghanistan. While President Trump heralded the agreement as a historic turning point in the war, some critics say the administration failed to exact enough concessions from the Taliban as Trump pursued his political goal of withdrawing U.S. troops, putting rights for women and ethnic minorities in danger. While violence subsided for a couple of weeks after the deal was finalized, fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces erupted shortly after, causing an alarming spike in civilian casualties.
Under the U.S.-Taliban deal, the U.S. agreed to a timetable for withdrawing troops this year and a complete withdrawal by next summer. Polls show broad and bipartisan public support for ending U.S. involvement in the conflict after years of war, and Trump reportedly wanted to withdraw all troops ahead of the November elections, promoting his desired image as an antiwar president (despite his hawkish positions toward Iran and other countries). Last month, the Defense Department announced that it expects there to be fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of November.
The Taliban agreed to enter peace talks with the Afghan government and take steps to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground for militant groups that could attack the U.S., including al-Qaeda, the target of the original U.S. offensive after the 9/11 attacks. However, reports suggest the Taliban have kept close ties with al-Qaeda despite their assurances to the Trump administration.
While the U.S.-Taliban deal set the stage for the current peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul, ending the U.S. occupation is one of the Taliban’s top goals, and Trump’s push to make good on his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. forces gives Afghanistan’s former rulers a leg up at the negotiating table. The Taliban have made it clear that they won’t agree to a ceasefire until both parties agree on an “Islamist system” of government, guaranteeing the Taliban a large if not dominant role in the country’s future. Many in the Afghan government fear losing U.S. military support and ceding power to the Taliban, given the way in which the U.S. has installed itself as a seemingly necessary part of the country’s precarious governmental infrastructure. But with the U.S. eyeing the exit, a power-sharing agreement is likely the only path toward peace.
“[The Taliban] understand that they are stronger at the negotiating table when they are stronger on the battlefield,” Felbab-Brown said, adding that the Taliban continue to effectively degrade the Afghan security forces with attacks. “So, they will ask for a lot of the table, and they will certainly ask for profound changes to the political dispensation of the country.”
While analysts and international interlocuters say the talks are the best chance Afghanistan has at establishing peace in decades, Felbab-Brown and others do not expect the civil war will end any time soon, even if U.S. forces withdraw completely.
“The chance that negotiations will result in a peace deal are slim, the betting odds are higher that the talks will break down, or to phrase it more precisely, talks will go on with starts and pauses … for years to come as civil war intensifies,” Felbab-Brown said.
Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the current situation on the ground – where the Taliban and Kabul are openly competing for territory – makes building a framework for peace difficult.
“Look at these reports of who controls territory and who is fighting for it — it tends to be district by district, and in a lot of cases, the government controls the main population center, the district capital, and the Taliban control the countryside,” Cordesman said in an interview. “How on Earth do you distribute power and authority in a new government?”
While some observers hope the Taliban will settle for changes to the Afghan constitution, Felbab-Brown is skeptical given their highly authoritarian and religious ideology. The best scenario Felbab-Brown can imagine is an Iran-like system with a supreme council of religious leaders heading the government with some elected officials operating below them. At minimum, she said, the Taliban hope to play a dominant role in the Afghan government, as they did before the U.S. invasion.
The prospect of an empowered Taliban terrifies urban, educated Afghans and women’s rights groups, who are already organizing through civil society to influence the peace talks. There is an international push to include ethnic minorities and women especially in the talks, but Kabul has only four women on its 21-member negotiating team. The Taliban have none. In the lead-up to the negotiations, deadly attacks on human rights activists and women serving in the Afghan government increased.
“My expectation is that Taliban want a strong or dominant role in the Afghan government and will be very inclined to make this space much more authoritarian, much more religiously oriented and much more repressive of civil society actors and women’s rights,” Felbab-Brown said.
While the U.S. points to increased access to education for women since the Taliban were ousted, Cordesman said the U.S. government’s official data on children attending school are probably exaggerated. With peace negotiations stalled at their initial stages, urban and educated Afghans are grappling with the reality that the price of peace may be living under the Taliban’s harsh rules once again. However, much of the country has been living under those rules all along: An estimated 76 percent of Afghan women live in Taliban-controlled areas and the conservative countryside where little has changed since the invasion, according to Felbab-Brown. For them, peace would at least mean an end to bloody fighting that claims the lives of brothers, sons and husbands they are forced to rely on for survival due to strict patriarchal codes.
What, if anything, the U.S. has achieved for the Afghan people during 19 years of war and occupation remains up for debate, but the amount of bloodshed is undeniable. On the anniversary of the Afghan war, activists across the U.S. will be calling for an end to the U.S. military’s massive global reach and interventionism, and to reallocate the nation’s massive war spending to meet the needs of people at home. Currently, the U.S. military has about 800 bases in dozens of countries across the world and is involved in a number of conflicts and proxy wars across North Africa and the Middle East. During this time of economic hardship, organizers are drawing attention to the way in which war and militarism suck up money that might otherwise fund life-affirming priorities like health care, housing and education.
“With one-half of the federal discretionary budget going to the US military, and much of the rest given over to subsidizing the already-rich, it’s little wonder that there are only crumbs left for the rest of us,” reads the statement by the Chicago Committee Against War and Racism.