Twenty years on, the West’s presence in Afghanistan has ended. But even prior to the US-led invasion in 2001, war and turmoil had plagued the country, resulting in four decades of instability. First, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, attempting to impose a pro-Soviet administration which resulted in brutal fighting between the Russians and the guerrilla mujahideen, leaving one million Afghans and 14,000 Russians dead. After a brief pro-Communist administration collapsed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a power vacuum occurred caused by a turbulent civil war for power.
The Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, imposing their rule until the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. After almost twenty years of fighting in Afghanistan, President Biden decided to pull US forces out of Afghanistan, and much of the country fell to the Taliban within weeks, with the fall of Kabul on August 15th 2020.
After twenty years of war and the cooling opinion of domestic Western constituencies towards this ‘forever war’, the West should have nonetheless remained in Afghanistan for a short while longer, to leave at a more suitable time, rather than their current, abrupt departure.
Firstly, there are various areas in the world that have maintained the presence of US soldiers. For example, South Korea, as of 2020, has 28,500 soldiers, and 55,000 in Japan, spending $34 billion to keep their military presence in Japan and Korea between 2016-2019, both non-war regions. Whilst the number $2 trillion has been floating around in terms of the cost of 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the math is that each year cost, on average, $100 billion. The price tag of one year costs approximately nine times what it costs to maintain soldiers in the non-active warzones of South Korea and Japan between 2016-2019.
However, within those twenty years the US actively waged war and used expensive equipment in the formative years of the occupation, costing $800 billion in direct costs, compared to the less expensive, supervisory role they had in recent years. As of 2021, the US spends 3.1% of their GDP on defence, amounting to $778 billion. Comparatively, for the entirety of the Afghanistan War for 20 years, the US spent the equivalent of just over the budget of 2021 ($778 billion) for the cost of waging war in Afghanistan ($800 billion). In terms of their vast GDP, this is comparatively small.
It would have been relatively cheap to allow the US to maintain a supervisory role with the Afghan National Army (ANA), as only 13,000 soldiers were actively deployed in February 2020, and maintained confidence, morale, and strength within the ANA, preventing a Taliban takeover after the announcement of the withdrawal of US-NATO forces.
As days pass, it is becoming ever clearer that the Afghans will likely be subjected to the brutality last seen under the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Particularly during these dark years, women’s rights were eroded. Women were flogged, stoned, battered, or killed for infractions. Girls were not allowed to go to school over the age of 10, women were unable to leave homes without a male relative, female doctors were virtually non-existent – with women being forbidden to visit a male doctor, women had very poor health during this period.
Outside of their treatment of women, the Taliban held public executions for murderers and adulterers, amputations of the foot and hand for thieves, and banned music, cinema, and kite-flying. Under the predominantly Pashtun Sunni Taliban, whose ethnic group makes up 42% of Afghanistan, ethnic cleansing of minorities occurred, including of the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks who make up 9%, 27% and 4% of the population respectively.
The notorious, systematic, door-to-door search for male members of those ethnic groups, who formed to ‘Northern Alliance’ against the Taliban in the late nineties, in Mazar-i-Sharif and Bamiyan, resulted in the murders of 8000 people, including non-combatants, civilians and children. Right now, according to the UN, the Taliban is conducting this door-to-door hunt for blacklisted Afghans, and there have been reports of murders of male Hazaras recently. It is the moral onus of the West to protect the sanctity of life of those who are at risk in Afghanistan, including, but not limited to, women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and other persecuted groups who will be very ill-treated under the Taliban.
Criticisms can also be found with the US’s chaotic withdrawal, a saga ongoing. With Afghanistan’s harsh, snowy winters, the Taliban tend to withdraw to tribal homelands in the winter and resume fighting in the summer months. President Biden’s aim of a symbolic September 11th withdrawal date resulted in a shambolic American exit. President Biden has stated that the withdrawal would have been chaotic in most circumstances, however, he may have been pursuing political expedience in pursuit of this deadline. If they had decided to leave in winter, the swift territorial gains of the Taliban, which saw them take the country within a week, may not have occurred as rapidly as it did, perhaps not at all.
As of the 20th of August 2021, the Taliban has taken the entire country, except Kabul airport and one rebel holdout, Panjshir Valley. But like most long-term turbulent countries, a power vacuum could possibly occur, especially considering Afghanistan’s recent history. For hegemony and the balance of power in the area, external powers with vested interests in the region, like India and China, may funnel money and arms to their favoured candidates.
Panjshir Valley, who have decided to, like their predecessors, the Northern Alliance, mount a resistance to the Taliban were joined by the Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, and the son of Afghanistan’s most famed anti-Taliban fighter, Ahmad Massoud. The Panjshir Valley never fell to the Soviet’s nor the Taliban for the duration of the eighties and nineties and remains a rebel stronghold enclave. There are reports of protests in other parts of Afghanistan, but time will expose current uncertainties, and whether the Taliban will bring about a peaceful Afghanistan, or whether the circle of violence will continue.
Image: The US Army via Creative Commons.