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Why It’s So Difficult to Win a War in Afghanistan

Why It’s So Difficult to Win a War in Afghanistan

The United States has been stuck in an unwinnable quagmire in Afghanistan for years, but it isn’t the first global power to wage an unsuccessful war there. Both the British Empire and the Soviet Union were ultimately unable to create a lasting presence in Afghanistan because they weren’t just fighting against the people who lived there—they were fighting against competing imperial interests in the strategically-located region.

Afghanistan has been the center of competing foreign powers for a long time. Between 1839 and 1919, the British fought threewars in Afghanistan, each lasting no more than a few months or years (although the last war was more like a skirmish). During the first two wars, the British Empire wanted to secure the country against Russia’s influence, says Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at James Madison University. During the third, it wanted to secure Afghanistan against the Ottoman Empire.

Similarly, the Soviet Union’s occupation ofthe region between 1979 and 1988 was bound up in its competition with American during the Cold War. The CIA covertly armed Afghanistan’s mujahideen (or “strugglers”) during that war, meaning that the Soviets were fighting a country that was being greatly helped by another empire.

Afghanistan’s strategic location—it connects Central Asia and the Middle East to South and East Asia—makes it a “kind of a policy way station towards a political agenda,” explains Hanifi. So when large empires go to war in Afghanistan, they come up against other country’s attempts to expert their own influence in the region.

The same is true today. Just as the U.S. secretly armed the mujahideen, NATO has accused Iran of arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. And recently, President Donald Trump asked India—which has a huge economic investment in Afghanistan—to “help us more” in the U.S. war there, according to The New York Times. (Though Trump didn’t name specifics, he was likely talking about economic aid.)

Of course, there are many other factors that make Afghanistan a tough place to wage war in. Logistically, the terrain makes it difficult to move people and equipment. In addition, “the geographic factors of terrain inform cultural values,” says Hanifi, meaning that outside forces don’t always understand the unique relationship between the country’s 14 recognized ethnic groups and its various tribes.

For example, in the current war, Hanifi says the U.S. has emphasized working with Pashtuns in creating a government in Afghanistan. But although they’re the ethnic majority, Pashtuns are spread across multiethnic and multilingual tribes, and the United States’ focus on them as a monolithic group has not been successful.

Looking to Pakistan

On August 21, 2017, President Donald Trump gave a speech about his plan for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Without offering specifics, Trump said that the U.S. will continue to fight until there is a clear victory. Which means, according to experts, that there is no end in sight.

But Trump’s speech wasn’t just about Afghanistan. He also announced that the U.S. would take a more aggressive policy toward Pakistan, which he accused of harboring terrorists.

Unlike the U.S., Pakistan doesn’t have an overarching set of laws governing all of its citizens. Tribes govern using local laws, and Trump’s new plan “is a direct attempt to deny what has historically been that safe haven of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, in Pakistan,” Hanifi says.

An attempt to crack down on individual tribes harboring terrorists “really does call indirectly for a radical reconfiguration of how Pakistan functions as a state,” he adds.

Hanifi says that because of Afghanistan’s strategic location, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. ever giving up a presence in the country, even if it formally ends its war there. And with Trump’s break from the United States’ previous policies towards Pakistan’s FATA, the situation is poised to become even more complicated.

Why is the US still in Afghanistan?

Two thousand soldiers, hundreds of billions of dollars and 17 years so far.

11 killed in attack in Afghanistan, the latest in spate of violence

—London -- On Aug. 21, 2017, President Donald Trump addressed American soldiers and Army generals at the Fort Myers military base in Arlington, Virginia, announcing that he was taking a new approach to the war in Afghanistan – the longest war in U.S. history, and its costliest since World War II.

Trump said American service members would be withdrawn on a "condition-based" approach and not according to a timetable. “One way or another these problems will be solved,” he said. “In the end, we will win.”

To that end, the number of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan would increase by 3,000, bringing the total number to 14,000. The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is to train, advise and assist the Afghan military who are doing the actual fighting against the Taliban and ISIS, but U.S. military personnel can find themselves in combat situations while carrying out the advisory mission.

Trump, in a shift from his predecessor, gave more power to military leaders in carrying out operations, bestowing additional authority on the Pentagon. On April 13, 2017, the U.S. military deployed a GBU-43, nicknamed “the mother of all bombs,” on an ISIS tunnel in Afghanistan. It sent a strong signal about how the new president was positioning himself on the fight against terror.

17 years into the campaign, what is the situation like currently in Afghanistan?

Trump, like many Americans, has frequently called into question U.S. involvement in the Middle Eastern country.

Violence in Afghanistan has risen dramatically since the phased withdrawal of allied troops in 2014. The Taliban insurgency has increasingly gained ground, carrying out successful terror attacks across the country and now, according to a new study, has a presence in 70 percent of Afghanistan.

The study’s findings were flatly dismissed this week at the Pentagon. Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. estimates that 60 percent of the country is under government control, with 10 or 15 percent controlled by the militants.

Last month just under 200 people were killed in four separate attacks carried out by groups apparently including the Taliban, ISIS-Khorasan (the terror group’s Afghan affiliate) and the Haqqani network.

Civilians, aid workers and Afghan soldiers were targeted in the January attacks. A flurry of violence has brought renewed focus on the progress Trump’s strategy is having there.

Why is the U.S. in Afghanistan?

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President George W. Bush vowed vengeance against the perpetrators who were quickly identified as being linked to al Qaeda – the extreme Salafist terror group founded by Osama bin Laden and based in Afghanistan.

After the atrocity, Bush, speaking to a joint session of Congress, gave a stark warning to the Taliban, a Sunni jihadist movement which aimed to create an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban must act, and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate,” he said.

Bush’s "War on Terror" would go on to cost more than $840 billion in Afghanistan alone, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Taliban, once an effective and enduring insurgency that ruled in Afghanistan, was toppled after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Today the group is joined by ISIS’ branch in the country and their longstanding allies al Qaeda and the Haqqani network.

Why haven’t these groups been defeated after 17 years?

“The Taliban is not a military group – it’s a lifelong commitment to a struggle. You can’t wait for their troops’ rotations to end. You can’t wait for their term of enlistment to expire. There is only death or success,” said Malcolm Nance, a U.S. Navy intelligence veteran who served in Nangarhar Province on the eastern border with Pakistan.

The myriad tribal and ethnic groups that live in Afghanistan have become disassociated with the central government in Kabul.

Andrew Exum, a former senior Department of Defense official in the Obama administration who served in Afghanistan as an army officer, said that the enduring reality of the Taliban and other established militant groups in the country can be attributed, among other things, to the weakness of the state – especially one that ignores many of its citizens living in remote tribal lands far away from the capital.

“Fighting an insurgency on a very local level, especially in areas such as eastern Afghanistan where the people don’t necessarily have any connection to the central government, makes it incredibly hard to achieve your goals there,” he said.

Why have there been so many attacks this year?

January was exceptionally violent month in the country -- just six months after Trump's plan was implemented.

Trump railed against the latest attacks, telling members of the UN Security Council at the White House this week that he was not interested in any more talks with the Taliban: "There’s no talking to the Taliban. We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish," he said.

The group warned that his rhetoric would lead to more bloodshed.

James B. Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014, told ABC News that it is too soon to judge what impact the new strategy would have on the ground.

"The implications of Trump’s seeming rejection of talks with the Taliban remain to be seen. He did say talks would not be possible for a long time, and that is likely the case," Cunningham explained. "But the essence of his own strategy is to use new forces and authorities to work with the coalition and the Afghans to create the conditions for eventually getting the Taliban to stop the killing and end the conflict — which is the right thing to do. a political solution at the end must be among Afghans."

Negotiations between the Afghan leadership and the militant group started in 2014. The group, unlike ISIS in Afghanistan, continues to push for control for what it sees as its "rightful share" of the country.

ISIS’s strategy in the country appears more opportunist than its attack on Save the Children in Jalalabad may demonstrate. The militant group is vying with its rivals to establish its place as a relevant and threatening presence.

What is Pakistan’s role in this?

Pakistan has been one of America’s most important allies in the fight against terror. But it has not been smooth sailing.

Relations were severely damaged when President Obama made the call to conduct a Navy SEAL raid on a Pakistani military compound in Abbottabad in 2011, resulting in the death of Osama bin Laden.

The Pakistanis were not notified of the operation before it was carried out. A government commission looking into the raid condemned what it described as “an American act of war” that demonstrated Washington’s “contemptuous disregard of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

The issue of drone strikes is also a bone of contention between Pakistan and the U.S. On Jan. 24 Pakistan condemned a U.S. drone strike which officials said targeted militants in the Haqqani network in the northwest of the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that such unilateral action was detrimental to cooperation against terror and added that the site was a refugee camp for Afghan nationals.

Pakistan, one of the largest recipients of American aid, was aghast after UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced plans to indefinitely suspend $225 million in foreign military aid at the start of January this year, accusing Islamabad of “playing a double game for years” with its selective support for various militant groups operating on its soil.

Some attribute the recent surge in violence in Afghanistan with the move. British diplomat Arthur Snell, previously stationed in Helmand province, said it is perfectly plausible that Pakistan may have responded to the withholding of aid by taking the pressure off counterterror efforts on its border with Afghanistan – likely easing the movement of militants and their supplies.

“That is why they have a relationship with the [Afghan] Taliban – it allows them to project power beyond their borders in an asymmetric way,” he told ABC News.

Ambassador Cunningham agrees that Pakistan has a connection to the latest attacks.

"These crimes against humanity, the targeting and slaughter of innocents, are undoubtedly guided by the Haqqani network and the senior Taliban leadership operating from Pakistan," he said. "Pakistan’s role is critical if the Taliban leaders are to come to the conclusion that continued terror is not going to prevail."

Why We Failed to Win a Decisive Victory in Afghanistan

There’s been a great debate over on Tom Ricks’s Best Defense blog in response to Jim Gourley’s question in relation to the Afghanistan campaign: “Why did we fail to render our enemies — those people who actively participated in open hostility against our forces — powerless?” Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the responses have taken the view that we have, indeed, lost in Afghanistan.

I take issue, however, with the starting assumption that “rendering our enemies powerless” should be the standard by which we evaluate the success of military action in Afghanistan, or lack thereof. I think the assumption clouds the analysis of both of Afghanistan and the conflict against the so-called Islamic State.

There’s been a great debate over on Tom Ricks’s Best Defense blog in response to Jim Gourley’s question in relation to the Afghanistan campaign: “Why did we fail to render our enemies — those people who actively participated in open hostility against our forces — powerless?” Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the responses have taken the view that we have, indeed, lost in Afghanistan.

I take issue, however, with the starting assumption that “rendering our enemies powerless” should be the standard by which we evaluate the success of military action in Afghanistan, or lack thereof. I think the assumption clouds the analysis of both of Afghanistan and the conflict against the so-called Islamic State.

War has two meanings. The first is a descriptive sense, in that war describes a situation above a certain threshold of violence, and therefore includes conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. The second is an instrumental sense, meaning a particular way in which force is used to achieve a political goal. The default understanding in Western militaries of war in the instrumental sense is still Clausewitzian. Consider the opening page of On War: “we must render the enemy powerless and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare.”

But when Clausewitz wrote that, he meant a very specific kind of war, namely the use of force in the Napoleonic context that was about decisive battle and unconditional surrender. When he wrote about more limited uses of force elsewhere in On War, he said that the more political considerations displaced military considerations, the more his theory of Napoleonic absolute war had to be adapted to account for the fact that outcomes short of the enemy’s overthrow might be the most realistic policy aim.

To my mind, “rendering our enemies powerless” is too narrow a concept of success to analyze the Afghan campaign, because “powerless” assumes that only decisive defeat of an enemy counts as success anything else means failure. That excludes the successful use of military force in circumstances in which a decisive outcome is not realistic.

In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, when the conventional phase was over and the mission became indistinguishable from enforcing the writ of a relatively corrupt government over disillusioned parts of its own population, the notion that a decisive outcome was even available is illusory: first, because that task is endless — as it’s about changing people’s political affiliations, which are liable to evolve (as we have seen quite spectacularly in Iraq since the surge) second, because there was not a single coherent enemy force to be rendered powerless in the first place.

In Afghanistan, there are tranches of the enemy who can and should be decisively defeated, like hard-core jihadi cells. Yet many “insurgents” are actually criminals — to whom the concept of decisive defeat is inappropriate, as criminality will always be there. Moreover, many of these criminals pursue local goals, and have no interest in marching on the Kabul government, which they’d be happily living off of parasitically. Other “insurgents” are locals with legitimate grievances against a corrupt government, against whom the concept of rendering them powerless is not just inappropriate but positively damaging: against them, success should be thought of in terms of empowering them.

By analogy, take the 2007-2008 Iraq surge. Sure, there were hard-core al Qaeda cells, the fight against whom by coalition Special Forces can legitimately be analyzed in terms of decisive battlefield outcomes. However, most of the insurgents were Sunnis alienated from Baghdad whom the surge empowered by resetting their relationship with the central government, thus giving them some of what they wanted. (And it is indeed their subsequent disempowerment, by the Shiite former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — who was precisely trying to achieve his political ends by rendering them powerless — that has led to the current chaos.)

In short, the idea that success in insurgencies necessarily means rendering all enemies powerless often mischaracterizes as failures outcomes that have actually proven successful in bringing peace.

The broader issue here, which is still live in light of how we approach other contemporary conflicts, is whether or not counterinsurgency was the wrong operational approach because it didn’t deliver decisive results.

Take the counterfactual argument that we could have achieved a decisive result if we had left Afghanistan in 2002, having conventionally defeated the Taliban and al Qaeda and routing them from Kabul, treating any further security issues as the Afghan government’s responsibility. OK, fine. But what if we had had to go back in later — would that have changed the evaluation of the decisiveness of the outcome achieved in 2002? Maybe, maybe not the answer depends entirely on the scope of the conflict to which you attach the concept of success. Is it sufficient just to think about military success as rendering an enemy powerless, or is military success really about the political conditions the use of force enables?

It seems to me that you have to include the achievement of policy goals — not just the evaluation of how an enemy comes off from the fight — in the evaluation of decisiveness of military outcome, or else the use of force becomes disconnected from its political purpose.

On that basis, to those of you who say we should have had a counterterrorism (CT) rather than a counterinsurgency (COIN) approach in the post-2002 phase of Afghanistan, I say whatever the merits of your argument in terms of its effect on the enemy, a CT approach would have been incompatible with the policy goals: your real issue is with foreign policy, not COIN.

Let’s briefly unpack that. A CT approach, given that insurgents in Afghanistan generally refuse to fight us conventionally, realistically would have meant working through militias, who are plainly not democratic. If your policy goals therefore require democratic reform you can’t have a CT approach that empowers militias (democracy, women’s rights, and anti-narcotics, for example, were still touted as coalition ambitions well after the policy goal was ostensibly reduced to “defeat, disrupt and dismantle” al Qaeda in 2009).

Was the COIN campaign necessitated by idealistic policy goals ever realistically going to be able to decisively deliver? No. A decisive outcome to the Afghan campaign was never on the table in the first place given the policy goals. The campaign was never reducible to a zero-sum outcome of victory and defeat, given that the long-term security of Afghanistan depended on issues beyond defeating the enemy, and the enemy himself was not a coherent entity against whom a single concept of defeat, in the sense of rendering it powerless, could even be applied.

Of course, you can ignore all that and force a military outcome on an insurgent enemy, by killing them alongside the civilian population amongst whom they hide, which is what Sri Lanka did in its 2009 civil war. It worked, but it was brutal, immoral, and did not address the underlying political grievances necessary for a long-term peace. Western armies rightly don’t do that.

If you can’t distill the Afghan campaign to a binary victory or defeat model, how then do you analyze it? To my mind, any non-Sri Lankan style counterinsurgency approach (and I don’t just mean heavy footprint COIN like in Afghanistan, but all COIN, including the use of small teams of advisors with local units in other contemporary conflicts) can be understood as an effort to persuade a range of constituencies, including the various parts of the enemy, to subscribe to a given narrative, or political story, if you like. At the very core in Afghanistan, that narrative was “don’t fight the Afghan government.”

Some parts of the enemy are never going to come across to our narrative, so you do need to render them powerless, which means using violent force against them. However, to take on all insurgents through violent force is inappropriate — both from a moral and a resource point of view. The failure to distinguish between different types of insurgents was a key problem early on in the Afghan campaign: we treated everyone who shot at us as hard-core “Taliban,” as if they were a single enemy, and ended up swimming upstream against a large insurgency.

Many insurgents, like narco-factions in Helmand, were pushed away from the Afghan government’s writ because of the anti-narcotics policy goal, without which southern Afghanistan would have been far less violent. It’s not surprising that, in an economy based on opium, this inflated the size of the insurgency with fighters who would not otherwise have taken up arms. Take, for example, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, who flipped his faction to fight the Afghan government having been sacked as the provincial governor of Helmand for narcotics offenses.

Yes, I know opium funds the Taliban, but it also funds most of the economy of southern Afghanistan so please don’t come back to me with the argument that somehow destroying opium specifically hurt the Taliban rather than alienating the whole region. The net effect was to massively help the Taliban. The policy also shifted onto us the burden of responsibility for finding an alternative economy for southern Afghanistan, another avoidable gargantuan task. At least democracy, rule of law, and women’s rights are honorable ambitions, even if they were unrealistic in many parts of Afghanistan. The anti-drugs aim, however, was an utterly ruinous, delusionary, and unnecessary foreign-policy goal that to my mind is the factor that, above all, unhinged our campaign in the south.

We were more effective later in the campaign when our understanding was far more nuanced and we stopped being such ideologues, but the earlier damage had already been done: Alienation of a constituency, whether deliberate, reckless, or accidental, is much easier than regaining their affiliation.

The bottom line is that, like in Iraq, there was scope to use aggressive battlefield action in Afghanistan to defeat tranches of the enemy like hard-core jihadi cells, not your Pashtun peasant with legitimate grievances against an abusive government. But the broader campaign, given the policy goals, was not reducible to a decisive battlefield outcome, as it was conceptually indistinguishable from extending the writ of the Afghan government, which simply meant (and still means) getting people to change their political affiliations. And since politics doesn’t end, we have entered, unsurprisingly, a long war with no clear end point, there being no clear demarcation between a peaceful “political” and wartime “military” phase of the Afghan conflict.

One soon ends up talking about “stability,” not victory — which is exactly how the language in which outcomes were described evolved through the Afghan campaign. What do you call the use of force in such a context if you are not calling it war in the instrumental sense, even if it’s war in a descriptive sense? Personally, I call it armed politics.

So let me go back to the basic conceptual reason I laid out for why we mis-analyze Afghanistan if we overly privilege the idea that it’s a war. Just because it’s descriptively a war, that doesn’t mean victory and defeat are always going to be on the table in a decisive sense. However, it was precisely the attempt to shoehorn the Afghan conflict into an instrumental model of war in which the aim is by default to render an enemy powerless that led us to treat all insurgents as part of one enemy who could be decisively defeated on the battlefield. That conceptual mistake ultimately expanded the insurgency, until we reversed out of it later in the campaign, and realized the Taliban were not a monolith and shouldn’t be fought as such. It is also this conceptual confusion that creates a false debate about why we “lost,” when Afghanistan is a conflict in which an unsatisfying outcome is probably as much as we could hope for — given how unrealistic the policy goals were. I don’t think there’s much more the military could have done given the foreign-policy context. The COIN vs. CT debate is a red herring: it’s really a proxy for differences about foreign policy.

The practical takeaway for practitioners: Taking on an insurgency is as much about the control of political as geographical space. So speaking to a political communications consultant who knows the local politics would probably be a better use of time that spending sleepless nights in the maneuver warfare library trying to work out how to converge on the decisive point and smash your enemy.

The practical takeaway for policymakers: Most contemporary conflicts, being networked conflicts of our information age, are not simply two-way fights which Western forces can win through decisive victories, not least because no sensible enemy will take on the U.S. military in a conventional fight. So if the United States genuinely only wants to fight wars it can “win” in the decisive sense, that means in reality staying out of the vast majority of contemporary conflicts and taking risk on the security implications of so doing. Realistically, that’s not going to happen, which then engages the issue of how you characterize the use of force in a conflict in which decisive battlefield outcome isn’t on the table. I suggest that armed politics is a more appropriate concept.

I don’t think it’s helpful to present the fight against al Qaeda or the Islamic State as “wars” because it condemns us to losing on our own terms. We are never going to defeat al Qaeda, or IS for that matter, through an exclusively battlefield mechanism, given they are essentially ideologies. The Cold War is a good analogy — if it was actually a war, then we would not have used an adjective that made clear that war alone was not the right way to think about that conflict, and appropriately implied that a decisive battlefield outcome was not available (at least outside the nuclear option, which is in a sense analogous to Sri Lankan-style COIN). We can achieve successes against IS, and deal with parts of the problem through aggressive battlefield action, but that plainly doesn’t mean a decisive battlefield outcome is available in the conflict as a whole. Indeed, the struggle is better understood as a long-term political effort — with elements of armed politics and domestic law enforcement — to get a wide range of constituencies not to support IS. Successes in this conflict probably won’t be particularly satisfying (think of the Shiite militias we seem to be empowering in Iraq, for example).

Finally, let’s go back to the original question: did we succeed or fail in Afghanistan? We don’t know yet, because it’s not over. Rather than speculate about how things might turn out, take the current situation: a continuing insurgency across the Pashtun provinces and parts of the north. It’s bad, but it does not present an existential threat to the state, so long as the Afghan Security Forces don’t crumble, which in turn seems to depend on outside support.

If you take security, and particularly Western security, as the basic goal, that state of affairs could be viewed as a moderate success for now, but the same result could likely have been achieved at much less cost, earlier on, with less ambitious policy goals. The anti-narcotics effort, needless to say, has been a total failure. On democracy and social goals, I don’t feel I have the authority to evaluate the quality of an Afghan girls’ life, for example, under a deeply corrupt Afghan state. But it’s clear the goals of a Westernized Afghanistan were completely unrealistic.

Do I think about the Afghan conflict with a deep sense of grief, given how policy goals untethered to reality expanded a fight in which many friends died? Yes. But I unless the Taliban march into Kabul, I don’t think we’ve lost.

I would like to thank Jim Gourley, conversation with whom was very helpful in the development of this piece.

Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.

How the Good War Went Bad

The United States has been fighting a war in Afghanistan for over 18 years. More than 2,300 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives there more than 20,000 others have been wounded. At least half a million Afghans—government forces, Taliban fighters, and civilians—have been killed or wounded. Washington has spent close to $1 trillion on the war. Although the al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead and no major attack on the U.S. homeland has been carried out by a terrorist group based in Afghanistan since 9/11, the United States has been unable to end the violence or hand off the war to the Afghan authorities, and the Afghan government cannot survive without U.S. military backing.

At the end of 2019, The Washington Post published a series titled “The Afghanistan Papers,” a collection of U.S. government documents that included notes of interviews conducted by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. In those interviews, numerous U.S. officials conceded that they had long seen the war as unwinnable. Polls have found that a majority of Americans now view the war as a failure. Every U.S. president since 2001 has sought to reach a point in Afghanistan when the violence would be sufficiently low or the Afghan government strong enough to allow U.S. military forces to withdraw without significantly increasing the risk of a resurgent terrorist threat. That day has not come. In that sense, whatever the future brings, for 18 years the United States has been unable to prevail.

The obstacles to success in Afghanistan were daunting: widespread corruption, intense grievances, Pakistani meddling, and deep-rooted resistance to foreign occupation. Yet there were also fleeting opportunities to find peace, or at least a more sustainable, less costly, and less violent stalemate. American leaders failed to grasp those chances, thanks to unjustified overconfidence following U.S. military victories and thanks to their fear of being held responsible if terrorists based in Afghanistan once again attacked the United States. Above all, officials in Washington clung too long to their preconceived notions of how the war would play out and neglected opportunities and options that did not fit their biases. Winning in Afghanistan was always going to be difficult. Avoidable errors made it impossible.


On October 7, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush launched an invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. In the months that followed, U.S. and allied forces and their partners in the Northern Alliance, an Afghan faction, chased out al Qaeda and upended the Taliban regime. Bin Laden fled to Pakistan the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, went to the mountains. Taliban commanders and fighters returned to their homes or escaped to safe havens in Pakistan. Skillful diplomatic efforts spearheaded by a U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, established a process that created a new Afghan government led by the conciliatory Hamid Karzai.

For the next four years, Afghanistan was deceptively peaceful. The U.S. military deaths during that time represent just a tenth of the total that have occurred during the war. Bush maintained a light U.S. military footprint in the country (around 8,000 troops in 2002, increasing to about 20,000 by the end of 2005) aimed at completing the defeat of al Qaeda and the Taliban and helping set up a new democracy that could prevent terrorists from coming back. The idea was to withdraw eventually, but there was no clear plan for how to make that happen, other than killing or capturing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Still, political progress encouraged optimism. In January 2004, an Afghan loya jirga, or grand council, approved a new constitution. Presidential and then parliamentary elections followed. All the while, Karzai strove to bring the country’s many factions together.

But in Pakistan, the Taliban were rebuilding. In early 2003, Mullah Omar, still in hiding, sent a voice recording to his subordinates calling on them to reorganize the movement and prepare for a major offensive within a few years. Key Taliban figures founded a leadership council known as the Quetta Shura, after the Pakistani city where they assembled. Training and recruitment moved forward. Cadres infiltrated back into Afghanistan. In Washington, however, the narrative of success continued to hold sway, and Pakistan was still seen as a valuable partner.

Violence increased slowly then, in February 2006, the Taliban pounced. Thousands of insurgents overran entire districts and surrounded provincial capitals. The Quetta Shura built what amounted to a rival regime. Over the course of the next three years, the Taliban captured most of the country’s south and much of its east. U.S. forces and their NATO allies were sucked into heavy fighting. By the end of 2008, U.S. troop levels had risen to over 30,000 without stemming the tide. Yet the overall strategy did not change. Bush remained determined to defeat the Taliban and win what he deemed “a victory for the forces of liberty.”

President Barack Obama came into office in January 2009 promising to turn around what many of his advisers and supporters saw as “the good war” in Afghanistan (as opposed to “the bad war” in Iraq, which they mostly saw as a lost cause). After a protracted debate, he opted to send reinforcements to Afghanistan: 21,000 troops in March and then, more reluctantly, another 30,000 or so in December, putting the total number of U.S. troops in the country at close to 100,000. Wary of overinvesting, he limited the goals of this “surge”—modeled on the one that had turned around the U.S. war in Iraq a few years earlier—to removing the terrorist threat to the American homeland. Gone was Bush’s intent to defeat the Taliban no matter what, even though the group could not be trusted to stop terrorists from using Afghanistan as a refuge. Instead, the United States would deny al Qaeda a safe haven, reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and strengthen the Afghan government and its security forces. The plan was to begin a drawdown of the surge forces in mid-2011 and eventually hand off full responsibility for the country’s security to the Afghan government.

Over the next three years, the surge stabilized the most important cities and districts, vitalized the Afghan army and police, and rallied support for the government. The threat from al Qaeda fell after the 2011 death of bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special operations forces in Pakistan. Yet the costs of the surge outweighed the gains. Between 2009 and 2012, more than 1,500 U.S. military personnel were killed and over 15,000 were wounded—more American casualties than during the entire rest of the 18-year war. At the height of the surge, the United States was spending approximately $110 billion per year in Afghanistan, roughly 50 percent more than annual U.S. federal spending on education. Obama came to see the war effort as unsustainable. In a series of announcements between 2010 and 2014, he laid out a schedule to draw down U.S. military forces to zero (excluding a small embassy presence) by the end of 2016.

By 2013, more than 350,000 Afghan soldiers and police had been trained, armed, and deployed. Their performance was mixed, marred by corruption and by “insider attacks” carried out on American and allied advisers. Many units depended on U.S. advisers and air support to defeat the Taliban in battle.

By 2015, just 9,800 U.S. troops were left in Afghanistan. As the withdrawal continued, they focused on counterterrorism and on advising and training the Afghans. That fall, the Taliban mounted a series of well-planned offensives that became one of the most decisive events of the war. In the province of Kunduz, 500 Taliban fighters routed some 3,000 Afghan soldiers and police and captured a provincial capital for the first time. In Helmand Province, around 1,800 Taliban fighters defeated some 4,500 Afghan soldiers and police and recaptured almost all the ground the group had lost in the surge. “They ran!” cried an angry Omar Jan, the most talented Afghan frontline commander in Helmand, when I spoke to him in early 2016. “Two thousand men. They had everything they needed—numbers, arms, ammunition—and they gave up!” Only last-minute reinforcements from U.S. and Afghan special operations forces saved the provinces.

In battle after battle, numerically superior and well-supplied soldiers and police in intact defensive positions made a collective decision to throw in the towel rather than go another round against the Taliban. Those who did stay to fight often paid dearly for their courage: some 14,000 Afghan soldiers and police were killed in 2015 and 2016. By 2016, the Afghan government, now headed by Ashraf Ghani, was weaker than ever before. The Taliban held more ground than at any time since 2001. In July of that year, Obama suspended the drawdown.

When President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the war raged on. He initially approved an increase of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to roughly 14,000. Trump disliked the war, however, and, looking for an exit, started negotiations with the Taliban in 2018. Those negotiations have yet to bear fruit, and the level of violence and Afghan casualties rates in 2019 were on par with those of recent years.


Why did things go wrong? One crucial factor is that the Afghan government and its warlord allies were corrupt and treated Afghans poorly, fomenting grievances and inspiring an insurgency. They stole land, distributed government jobs as patronage, and often tricked U.S. special operations forces into targeting their political rivals. This mistreatment pushed certain tribes into the Taliban’s arms, providing the movement with fighters, a support network, and territory from which to attack. The experience of Raees Baghrani, a respected Alizai tribal leader, is typical. In 2005, after a Karzai-backed warlord disarmed him and stole some of his land and that of his tribesmen, Baghrani surrendered the rest of his territory in Helmand to the Taliban. Many others like him felt forced into similar choices.

Washington could have done more to address the corruption and the grievances that Afghans felt under the new regime and the U.S. occupation, such as pushing Karzai to remove the worst-offending officials from their positions, making all forms of U.S. assistance contingent on reforms, and reducing special operations raids and the mistaken targeting of innocent Afghans. That said, the complexity of addressing corruption and grievances should not be underestimated. No comprehensive solution existed that could have denied the Taliban a support base.

Another major factor in the U.S. failure was Pakistan’s influence. Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan has always been shaped in large part by the Indian-Pakistani rivalry. In 2001, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf officially cut off support for the Taliban at the behest of the Bush administration. But he soon feared that India was gaining influence in Afghanistan. In 2004, he reopened assistance to the Taliban, as he later admitted to The Guardian in 2015, because Karzai, he alleged, had “helped India stab Pakistan in the back” by allowing anti-Pakistan Tajiks to play a large role in his government and by fostering good relations with India. The Pakistani military funded the Taliban, granted them a safe haven, ran training camps, and advised them on war planning. The critical mass of recruits for the 2006 offensive came from Afghan refugees in Pakistan. A long succession of U.S. leaders tried to change Pakistani policy, all to no avail: it is unlikely that there was anything Washington could have done to convince Pakistan’s leaders to take steps that would have risked their influence in Afghanistan.

Underneath these factors, something more fundamental was at play. The Taliban exemplified an idea—an idea that runs deep in Afghan culture, that inspired their fighters, that made them powerful in battle, and that, in the eyes of many Afghans, defines an individual’s worth. In simple terms, that idea is resistance to occupation. The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan was an assault on what it meant to be Afghan. It inspired Afghans to defend their honor, their religion, and their homeland. The importance of this cultural factor has been confirmed and reconfirmed by multiple surveys of Taliban fighters since 2007 conducted by a range of researchers.

The Afghan government, tainted by its alignment with foreign occupiers, could not inspire the same devotion. In 2015, a survey of 1,657 police officers in 11 provinces conducted by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies found that only 11 percent of respondents had joined the force specifically to fight the Taliban most of them had joined to serve their country or to earn a salary, motivations that did not necessarily warrant fighting, much less dying. Many interviewees agreed with the claim that police “rank and file are not convinced that they are fighting for a just cause.” There can be little doubt that a far larger percentage of Taliban fighters had joined the group specifically to confront the United States and the Afghans who were cooperating with the Americans.

This asymmetry in commitment explains why, at so many decisive moments, Afghan security forces retreated without putting up much of a fight despite their numerical superiority and their having at least an equal amount of ammunition and supplies. As a Taliban religious scholar from Kandahar told me in January 2019, “The Taliban fight for belief, for jannat [heaven] and ghazi [killing infidels]. . . . The army and police fight for money. . . . The Taliban are willing to lose their heads to fight. . . . How can the army and police compete with the Taliban?” The Taliban had an edge in inspiration. Many Afghans were willing to kill and be killed on behalf of the Taliban. That made all the difference.


These powerful factors have kept the United States and the Afghan government from prevailing. But failure was not inevitable. The best opportunities to succeed appeared early on, between 2001 and 2005. The Taliban were in disarray. Popular support for the new Afghan government was relatively high, as was patience with the foreign presence. Unfortunately, U.S. decisions during that time foreclosed paths that might have avoided the years of war that followed.

The first mistake was the Bush administration’s decision to exclude the Taliban from the postinvasion political settlement. Senior Taliban leaders tried to negotiate a peace deal with Karzai in December 2001. They were willing to lay down their arms and recognize Karzai as the country’s legitimate leader. But U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shot down the deal—in a press conference, no less. After that, between 2002 and 2004, Taliban leaders continued to reach out to Karzai to ask to be allowed to participate in the political process. Karzai brought up these overtures to U.S. officials only to have the Bush administration respond by banning negotiations with any top Taliban figures. In the end, the new government was established without the Taliban getting a seat at the table. Whether or not the entire group would have compromised, enough senior leaders were interested that future violence could have been lessened.

After pushing the Taliban back to war, Bush and his team then moved far too slowly in building up the Afghan security forces. After the initial invasion, a year passed before Washington committed to building and funding a small national army of 70,000. Recruitment and training then proceeded haltingly. By 2006, only 26,000 Afghan army soldiers had been trained. So when the Taliban struck back that year, there was little to stop them. In his memoir, Bush concedes the error. “In an attempt to keep the Afghan government from taking on an unsustainable expense,” he writes, “we had kept the army too small.”

The Bush administration thus missed the two best opportunities to find peace. An inclusive settlement could have won over key Taliban leaders, and capable armed forces could have held off the holdouts. Overconfidence prevented the Bush team from seeing this. The administration presumed that the Taliban had been defeated. Barely two years after the Taliban regime fell, U.S. Central Command labeled the group a “spent force.” Rumsfeld announced at a news conference in early 2003: “We clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities. . . . The bulk of the country today is permissive it’s secure.” In other words, “Mission accomplished.”

The ease of the initial invasion in 2001 distorted Washington’s perceptions. The administration disregarded arguments by Karzai, Khalilzad, U.S. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry (then the senior U.S. general in Afghanistan), Ronald Neumann (at the time the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan), and others that the insurgents were staging a comeback. Believing they had already won the war in Afghanistan, Bush and his team turned their attention to Iraq. And although the fiasco in Iraq was not a cause of the failure in Afghanistan, it compounded the errors in U.S. strategy by diverting the scarce time and attention of key decision-makers.


After 2006, the odds of a better outcome narrowed. The reemergence of the Taliban catalyzed further resistance to the occupation. U.S. airstrikes and night raids heightened a sense of oppression among Afghans and triggered in many an obligation to resist. After the Taliban offensive that year, it is hard to see how any strategy could have resulted in victory for the United States and the Afghan government. Nevertheless, a few points stand out when Washington might have cleared a way to a less bad outcome.

The surge was one of them. In retrospect, the United States would have been better off if it had never surged at all. If his campaign promises obligated some number of reinforcements, Obama still might have deployed fewer troops than he did—perhaps just the initial tranche of 21,000. But General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, did not present the president with that kind of option: all their proposals involved further increases in the number of U.S. military personnel deployed to Afghanistan. Both generals believed that escalation was warranted owing to the threat posed by the possible reestablishment of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorists. Both had witnessed how a counterinsurgency strategy and unswerving resolve had turned things around in Iraq, and both thought the same could be done in Afghanistan. Their case that something had to be done and their overconfidence in counterinsurgency crowded out the practical alternative of forgoing further reinforcements. Had Obama done less, U.S. casualties and expenses would likely have been far lower and still the conditions would have changed little.

It is worth noting that the much-criticized 18-month deadline that Obama attached to the surge, although unnecessary, was not itself a major missed opportunity. There is scant evidence to support the charge that if Obama had given no timeline, the Taliban would have been more exhausted by the surge and would have given up or negotiated a settlement.

But Obama did err when it came to placing restrictions on U.S. forces. Prior to 2014, U.S. airstrikes had been used when necessary to strike enemy targets, and commanders took steps to avoid civilian casualties. That year, however, as part of the drawdown process, it was decided that U.S. airstrikes in support of the Afghan army and police would be employed only “in extremis”—when a strategic location or major Afghan formation was in danger of imminent annihilation. The idea was to disentangle U.S. forces from combat and, to a lesser extent, to reduce civilian casualties. As a result of the change, there was a pronounced reduction in the number of U.S. strikes, even as the Taliban gained strength. Into 2016, U.S. forces carried out an average of 80 airstrikes per month, less than a quarter of the monthly average for 2012. Meanwhile, over 500 airstrikes per month were being conducted in Iraq and Syria against a comparable adversary. “If America just helps with airstrikes and . . . supplies, we can win,” pleaded Omar Jan, the frontline commander in Helmand, in 2016. “My weapons are worn from shooting. My ammunition stocks are low. I do not need advisers. I just need someone to call when things are really bad.” The decision to use airstrikes only in extremis virtually ensured defeat. Obama had purchased too little insurance on his withdrawal policy. When the unexpected happened, he was unprepared.

Bush had enjoyed the freedom to maneuver in Afghanistan for half his presidency and had still passed up significant opportunities. Facing far greater constraints, Obama had to play the cards he had been dealt. The Afghan government had been formed, violence had returned, and a spirit of resistance had arisen in the Afghan people. Obama’s errors derived less from a willful refusal to take advantage of clear opportunities than from oversights and miscalculations made under pressure. They nevertheless had major consequences.


Given the high costs and slim benefits of the war, why hasn’t the United States simply left Afghanistan? The answer is the combination of terrorism and U.S. electoral politics. In the post-9/11 world, U.S. presidents have had to choose between spending resources in places of very low geostrategic value and accepting some unknown risk of a terrorist attack, worried that voters will never forgive them or their party if they underestimate the threat. Nowhere has that dynamic been more evident than in Afghanistan.

In the early years after the 9/11 attacks, the political atmosphere in the United States was charged with fears of another assault. Throughout 2002, various Gallup polls showed that a majority of Americans believed that another attack on the United States was likely. That is one reason why Bush, after having overseen the initial defeat of al Qaeda and the Taliban, never considered simply declaring victory and bringing the troops home. He has said that an option of “attack, destroy the Taliban, destroy al Qaeda as best we could, and leave” was never appealing because “that would have created a vacuum [in] which . . . radicalism could become even stronger.”

The terrorist threat receded during the first half of Obama’s presidency, yet he, too, could not ignore it, and its persistence took the prospect of a full withdrawal from Afghanistan off the table in the run-up to the surge. According to the available evidence, at no point during the debate over the surge did any high-level Obama administration official advocate such a move. One concern was that withdrawing completely would have opened up the administration to intense criticism, possibly disrupting Obama’s domestic agenda, which was focused on reviving the U.S. economy after the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession.

Only after the surge and the death of bin Laden did a “zero option” become conceivable. Days after bin Laden was captured and killed, in May 2011, a Gallup poll showed that 59 percent of Americans believed the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had been accomplished. “It is time to focus on nation building here at home,” Obama announced in his June 2011 address on the drawdown. Even so, concerns about the ability of the Afghan government to contain the residual terrorist threat defeated proposals, backed by some members of the administration, to fully withdraw more quickly. Then, in 2014, the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria and a subsequent string of high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States made even the original, modest drawdown schedule less strategically and politically feasible. After the setbacks of 2015, the U.S. intelligence community assessed that if the drawdown went forward on schedule, security could deteriorate to the point where terrorist groups could once again establish safe havens in Afghanistan. Confronted with that finding, Obama essentially accepted the advice of his top generals to keep U.S. forces there, provide greater air support to the Afghan army and police, and continue counterterrorism operations in the country. The intention to get out had met reality and blinked.

So far, a similar fate has befallen Trump, the U.S. president with the least patience for the mission in Afghanistan. With Trump agitating for an exit, substantive talks between the Taliban and the United States commenced in 2018. An earlier effort between 2010 and 2013 had failed because the conditions were not ripe: the White House was occupied with other issues, negotiating teams were not in place, and Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader, was in seclusion—and then died in 2013. By 2019, those obstacles no longer stood in the way, and Trump was uniquely determined to leave. The result was the closest the United States has come to ending the war.

Khalilzad, once again serving as a special envoy, made quick progress by offering a timeline for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in return for the Taliban engaging in negotiations with the Afghan government, reducing violence as the two sides worked toward a comprehensive cease-fire, and not aiding al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. Over the course of nine rounds of talks, the two sides developed a draft agreement. The Taliban representatives in the talks and the group’s senior leaders refused to meet all of Khalilzad’s conditions. But the initial agreement was a real opportunity for Trump to get the United States out of Afghanistan and still have a chance at peace.

It fell apart. Although Trump toyed with the idea of holding a dramatic summit to announce a deal at Camp David in September 2019, he was torn between his campaign promise to end “endless wars” and the possibility of a resurgent terrorist threat, which could harm him politically. During an interview with Fox News in August, he was distinctly noncommittal about fully withdrawing. “We’re going down to 8,600 [troops], and then we’ll make a determination from there,” he said, adding that a “high intelligence presence” would stay in the country. So when the Taliban drastically escalated their attacks in the run-up to a possible announcement, killing one American soldier and wounding many more, Trump concluded that he was getting a bad deal and called off the negotiations, blasting the Taliban as untrustworthy. Trump, like Obama before him, would not risk a withdrawal that might someday make him vulnerable to the charge of willingly unlocking the terrorist threat. And so yet another chance to end the war slipped away.

The notion that the United States should have just left Afghanistan presumes that a U.S. president was free to pull the plug as he pleased. In reality, getting out was nearly as difficult as prevailing. It was one thing to boldly promise that the United States would leave in the near future. It was quite another to peer over the edge when the moment arrived, see the uncertainties, weigh the political fallout of a terrorist attack, and still take the leap.


The United States failed in Afghanistan largely because of intractable grievances, Pakistan’s meddling, and an intense Afghan commitment to resisting occupiers, and it stayed largely because of unrelenting terrorist threats and their effect on U.S. electoral politics. There were few chances to prevail and few chances to get out.

In this situation, a better outcome demanded an especially well-managed strategy. Perhaps the most important lesson is the value of forethought: considering a variety of outcomes rather than focusing on the preferred one. U.S. presidents and generals repeatedly saw their plans fall short when what they expected to happen did not: for Bush, when the Taliban turned out not to be defeated for McChrystal and Petraeus, when the surge proved unsustainable for Obama, when the terrorist threat returned for Trump, when the political costs of leaving proved steeper than he had assumed. If U.S. leaders had thought more about the different ways that things could play out, the United States and Afghanistan might have experienced a less costly, less violent war, or even found peace.

This lack of forethought is not disconnected from the revelation in The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” that U.S. leaders misled the American people. A single-minded focus on preferred outcomes had the unhealthy side effect of sidelining inconvenient evidence. In most cases, determined U.S. leaders did this inadvertently, or because they truly believed things were going well. At times, however, evidence of failure was purposefully swept under the rug.

Afghanistan’s past may not be its future. Just because the war has been difficult to end does not mean it will go on indefinitely. Last November, Trump reopened talks with the Taliban. A chance exists that Khalilzad will conjure a political settlement. If not, Trump may decide to get out anyway. Trump has committed to reducing force levels to roughly the same number that Obama had in place at the end of his term. Further reductions could be pending. Great-power competition is the rising concern in Washington. With the death last year of ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadow of 9/11 might at last recede, and the specter of terrorism might lose some of its influence on U.S. politics. At the same time, the roiling U.S. confrontation with Iran is a wild card that could alter the nature of the Afghan war, including by re-entrenching the American presence.

But none of that can change the past 18 years. Afghanistan will still be the United States’ longest war. Americans can best learn its lessons by studying the missed opportunities that kept the United States from making progress. Ultimately, the war should be understood neither as an avoidable folly nor as an inevitable tragedy but rather as an unresolved dilemma.

4 Answers 4

Its soldiers saw wide ranging combat experience over the 3 years in conflict against veteran soldiers of Germany and Japan.

I believe you have answered your own question: The USA was war weary and looked forward with optimism to a time of peace. "The Red Scare" was simply that - a scare - nothing more. The country was trying put itself back together: There was very little interest or motivation on the part of those combat scarred veterans or their families to shove off to the distant shores of China and Korea and fight a nebulous red chimera in another brutal war. In short "motivation" was the indeed the determining factor.

It was not a question of not being able to win, but of not wanting to devote the requisite blood and treasure victory would have required. Unlike some other nations, ruled by despots and military leaders, in the USA the domestic political climate directly impacts foreign policy particularly with respect to wars: The President and Congress are in charge of waging war, and they are civilians, who owe their power directly to the civilian electorate. If the electorate objects to a war, the elected officials will very soon take notice. This pattern has been repeated many times in the course of American History, back to the USA's earliest days.

But the Korean conflict was becoming increasingly protracted, complex and deadly - the first of the modern American "quagmires": There were serious setbacks in the fighting around the 38th parallel in early 1951, and the USSR had started getting involved in the Spring of 1951. At that point, Truman himself, who had gone into Korea (under the cover of a UN 'police action') hoping the the US could limit its involvement principally to air strikes and some naval action, became pessimistic about the situation in Korea, as the prospect of a large scale ground war loomed imminent - something he never wanted, and knew would be be politically unsustainable: MacArthur threatened to destroy China unless it surrendered. While MacArthur felt total victory was the only honorable outcome, Truman was more pessimistic about his chances once involved in a land war in Asia, and felt a truce and orderly withdrawal from Korea could be a valid solution. Certainly, the USA could have used nuclear weapons (as McArthur suggested) to settle things, but in Truman's mind, that was the last, worst option, both internationally and domestically.

In fact, the failure to quickly resolve the Korean Conflict was a factor in Truman's decision not to run for President in 1952 (the 22nd Amendment did not apply to Truman: ". But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress. " the 22nd was proposed in 1947, ratified in 1951 - all while Truman was President) - his popularity had sagged in part due to the situation in Korea, not unlike the situation Lyndon Johnson faced in 1968, when the conflict in Vietnam was so problematic for him, due to its domestic unpopularity, and was a factor in his decision not to run for re-election at that time.

It would have been impossible for Truman to muster the political support necessary for an extended full blown war against China and possibly the USSR in such a domestic political climate, simply because of a "scare" on the other side of the world, and Truman knew it.

In the presidential campaign of 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who subsequently emerged victorious, included a promise to end the war in Korea: Many of his radio and television commercials discussed topics such as. ending the war in Korea. i.e : It was an unpopular war.

UN intervention and Armistice, engineered by Eisenhower's administration, was really the only viable option.

Canada and the War in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan (2001–14) was Canada’s longest war and its first significant combat engagement since the Korean War (1950–53). After the 2001 terror attacks on the United States, Canada joined an international coalition to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban regime that sheltered it in Afghanistan. (See 9/11 and Canada). Although the Taliban were removed from power and the al-Qaeda network was disrupted, Canada and its allies failed to destroy either group, or to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. More than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served in the 12-year campaign. The war killed 165 Canadians — 158 soldiers and 7 civilians. Many Canadian veterans of the war in Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

From 2001-2014 Canadian soldiers served with an international coalition fighting the war in Afghanistan — a legacy of the 9/11 attacks.

Key Facts About Canada and the War in Afghanistan

Is Canada still fighting in Afghanistan? No, the last Canadian troops left Afghanistan in March 2014.
How long was Canada involved in the war in Afghanistan? Canadian forces were involved in the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014.
How many Canadians fought in Afghanistan? More than 40,000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces served in Afghanistan.
How many Canadians died during the war in Afghanistan? In total, 165 Canadians died during the war in Afghanistan (158 soldiers, 7 civilians). More than 2,000 members of the CAF were wounded or injured during the war.

9/11 Attacks

Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and used them to attack New York and Washington, DC, on 11 September 2001, killing almost 3,000 people (including 24 Canadians) and shocking the world. Al-Qaeda was an Islamist terror organization led by Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leadership were based in Afghanistan, where they received safe haven from that country’s ultra-conservative, theocratic Taliban regime.

The World Trade Centre towers in New York City were attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.

The day after the attacks, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien telephoned United States president George W. Bush to pledge “Canada’s complete support” for the Americans. The exact nature of this commitment became clear in October: Canada would take part in a US-led multinational campaign to invade Afghanistan, capture members of al-Qaeda, dismantle their training camps and overthrow the Taliban government. Canada’s campaign would be multifaceted, involving land, air and sea forces as well as civilian diplomatic and intelligence resources.

Invasion of Afghanistan

In late 2001, United States, British and other international forces invaded Afghanistan, and with the help of Afghan opposition militants toppled the Taliban regime in the capital city of Kabul. The US-led coalition hunted down Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents across Afghanistan, including various mountain hideouts. In one such case, during a firefight with al-Qaeda members, US troops wounded and captured 15-year-old Omar Khadr, who was born in Canada.

Osama bin Laden escaped to Pakistan. He would not be found and killed by US forces until 2011.

A few dozen Canadian special forces troops participated in the 2001 invasion. They were followed in February 2002 by an infantry battle group (approximately 1,200 troops), sent to the southern Afghan province of Kandahar as part of a United States Army task force searching for insurgents in that area. The Canadians fought against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, and provided protection for humanitarian operations and for Afghanistan’s new interim government.

An explosion triggered by an IED in eastern Afghanistan, in 2000.

The first Canadian deaths in Afghanistan occurred in April, when four soldiers with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were killed in an accidental, “friendly fire” bombing incident by a United States pilot.

The bulk of Canadian ground forces returned home in July to wide public and media acclaim – a sign that the military’s efforts in Afghanistan were improving the reputation of Canada’s Armed Forces, which had suffered blows to their reputation and morale, and years of government neglect, during the 1990s.

Naval Contribution

Canada sent warships to southwest Asia, as part of the United States-led counter-terrorism naval campaign, from 2001 to 2012. Afghanistan has no ocean borders, so the naval effort didn’t directly affect the military situation there. However, in patrolling and policing the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman, the Navy contributed to general security in the region, while searching civilian vessels for wanted terrorists and for illegal drug shipments that might have been used to fund terrorist groups operating in the area.

A map showing the Middle East and South Asia, including Afghanistan (yellow), Pakistan (green) and the Arabian Sea.

The busiest naval deployment occurred during Operation Apollo, from 2001 to 2003, during which 15 Canadian warships from bases in Halifax and Esquimalt were sent to the region — Canada’s largest naval operation since the Second World War. In January 2002, as many as six Canadian ships, with 1,500 personnel, were operating simultaneously in the area.

Kabul and Kandahar

Canada’s main contribution to the war effort was the maintenance in Afghanistan of an Army battle group of approximately 2,000 infantry soldiers, along with at different times, armoured vehicles, tanks, artillery and other support units such as a field hospital in Kandahar. The Air Force also contributed tactical and transport helicopters, long-range transport aircraft and unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles.

The men and women of the battle group were drawn from Canada’s three professional, regular force brigades, augmented by part-time reservists. Soldiers were rotated in and out of Afghanistan on tours of duty, serving under the NATO-led International Stabilization Assistance Force (ISAF), which in 2004 was commanded by Canadian lieutenant-general Rick Hillier.

Smaller teams of soldiers, and volunteers from police forces across Canada, were also sent to mentor and train the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

From 2003 to 2005, the Canadian battle group’s mission focused on providing security in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and helping to disarm Afghan militia units under the command of local warlords. There, despite occasional insurgent suicide bomber attacks, Canadians were mostly involved in patrolling, policing and the stabilization of the new Afghan government.

A second, more dangerous phase took place from 2006 to 2011 when the battle group was transferred to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. By this time, the situation in much of the country had devolved into a full-blown counter-insurgency struggle. The Canadians were tasked with providing security across Kandahar province, and rooting out Taliban insurgents in the city and the surrounding rural districts. Canada also took over responsibility for a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar — a unit tasked with winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghan civilians in the area and supporting local government leaders.

A Canadian gunner, in the door of a Griffon helicopter, over Kandahar district, Afghanistan in 2011. Soldiers move towards a village in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2010. Soldiers unload and board a CH-47 Chinook Helicopter at a combat outpost in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2010. A Canadian C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, arriving at Kandahar airfield in May 2002.

In Kandahar, Canadian forces engaged in open combat against Taliban guerrilla fighters. With their professional skills and superior firepower, the Canadians won a series of battles, and defended Kandahar itself from Taliban takeover. However, these tactical victories meant little in the overall war. Every time insurgent forces were defeated in battle, they retreated, regrouped and returned in larger numbers, quietly infiltrating rural communities and Kandahar itself, influencing and intimidating the population, threatening security and destabilizing local government. Year after year, Canadian military commanders issued misleading claims that hundreds of Taliban fighters had been killed or fled, and that the Kandahar insurgency was on the verge of defeat. In fact, the insurgency grew, and security steadily worsened in the area from 2006 through the Canadians’ departure from Kandahar in 2011.

During the same period, Canadians bore witness to a steady stream of military funerals, as soldiers’ remains were returned home in flag-draped caskets. Most of the Canadians killed in Afghanistan died during the Kandahar operations, many from the Taliban’s roadside bombs, officially known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which targeted Canadian military convoys. Among the dead was 26-year-old Army Captain Nichola Goddard, killed by a rocket propelled grenade during a firefight with insurgents in May 2006 — the first Canadian female soldier ever killed in combat (see Women in the Military).

These soldiers’ deaths appeared increasingly futile, since the greatest obstacle to defeating the insurgency was the vital support it received from neighbouring Pakistan. For decades, Pakistan’s military leadership had used the Taliban as a way of exercising proxy control over Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services were now recruiting, training, funding and providing safe haven for the Taliban insurgency (as well as hiding the remaining al-Qaeda leadership). The insurgency in Kandahar was impossible to contain, as long as the United States, Canada and NATO were unwilling to either take the fight across the border into Pakistan — a supposed ally – or to end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.

Reconstruction Campaign

In addition to the military effort, Canada and other coalition countries worked to rebuild Afghanistan. The country’s challenges were staggering. The site of violent conflict since the late 1970s, the country was one of the poorest in the world. Most children did not attend school and illiteracy rates were high (see Literacy). Many local officials were corrupt. Warlords and tribal leaders exerted power in large areas of the country. Opium production provided drug money to warlords and the Taliban. By 2001, at the time of the invasion, most of the country was in ruins, without basic services such as paved roads or electricity, and most Afghans were living “in the dark ages,” according to the New York Times.

A group of children play together in a village square in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2010.

Canada spent $2.2 billion on development assistance from 2001 to 2014, making Afghanistan the largest recipient of Canadian aid during that time. Some of this aid was distributed by non-government organizations providing food, education and basic services to communities. In other cases, Canada ran polio vaccination and other health programs, and helped in the rebuilding of dams, roads, schools and other infrastructure. Other services — on governance support, prison and police administration and training — were provided by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar and its several hundred military and civilian personnel.

Canadian Forces Withdraw from Afghanistan

In Canada, public support for the war was high in the early years of the conflict, but began to wane in the fall of 2006, as Canadian casualties mounted in Kandahar (see Public Opinion). Although general support for the Armed Forces remained high, by 2007 more than half of Canadians surveyed said they believed the military campaign would fail.

A mission that began under the Liberal governments of prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, was supported and extended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper after his Conservatives took power in 2006. Although many Liberals in Parliament had supported the extension in May, by the end of 2006, the three main opposition parties — the Liberals, the Bloc Québecois and New Democrats — were all calling for Canada to end its combat mission in Afghanistan but continue with humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Canada’s role was complicated in 2007 by a political scandal surrounding the treatment of Taliban prisoners captured by Canadians and handed over to Afghan security forces, who allegedly tortured the detainees. Under international law, Canada was responsible for the torture of prisoners captured by its soldiers. The detainee scandal dominated political debate in Canada for several months in 2007 — and resurfaced in 2009, threatening to topple Harper’s minority government — until Canada established a program for the monitoring of Taliban detainees in Afghan prisons.

Amid the detainee issue, the mounting Canadian casualties, and the military’s misleading claims of success in Kandahar, Canada stuck with its mission there until 2011, when Canadian combat operations ended, and responsibility for security in Kandahar was transferred back to the United States (whose military — despite a “surge” in troops to the region, faced the same security problems that had troubled the Canadian military for five years).

Most Canadian troops and hardware were brought home, although a small contingent of soldiers was stationed in Kabul, training and advising Afghan security forces. In March 2014, the Kabul mission closed and Canada’s 12-year military role in Afghanistan came to an end.

Significance and Legacy

Canada spent an estimated $18 billion fighting in Afghanistan and trying to reconstruct the country. The war took the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers and wounded or injured more than 2,000 others. Seven Canadian civilians were also killed — a diplomat, four aid workers, a government contractor and a journalist.

As of March 2020, approximately 17 percent of Canadian military personnel who took part in the War in Afghanistan received a Veterans Affairs Canada pension or disability award for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to an investigation by the Globe and Mail, more than 70 Canadian soldiers and veterans who were deployed to Afghanistan had committed suicide by December 2017. “Many had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental-health issues related to their military work, along with personal problems such as relationship breakdowns and financial stress.” More than 175 Canadian military personnel took their own lives between 2010 and 2020.

Canadian troops carry the remains of Master Corporal Byron Greff to a waiting aircraft in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2011. Greff was killed when a Taliban vehicle packed with explosives rammed into the armored vehicle Greff was in.

Debate continues over whether Canada succeeded. Some, such as the military commanders who led the Canadian battle group in Kabul and Kandahar, have said Canadian troops helped keep the Taliban insurgency at bay for eight years, buying time for Afghan security forces and government institutions to establish themselves. Certainly Canada and its coalition allies succeeded in disrupting al-Qaeda and toppling the Taliban regime — a responsibility of NATO members in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Reconstruction aid and military support also helped to improve general living standards and raise parts of the country out of extreme poverty.

But others say Canada failed in its core mission to help secure Kabul and Kandahar from insurgent violence. Said Policy Options magazine in 2014: “In the end, the Canadian exertions and sacrifices in Kandahar did little to change the underlying conditions of this conflict.” When Canada departed Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgencies were destabilizing the government and threatening the population. According to Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog group, the Taliban controlled more Afghan territory in 2017 than at any time since 2001. By 2017, the insecurity was compounded by the added violence of another terror group, the Islamic State.

Afghanistan was a counter-insurgency war. The Canadian Armed Forces faced the same problems that have confounded other modern armies in counter-insurgency conflicts — such wars are almost impossible to resolve on the battlefield and require instead political solutions. The Taliban insurgency was an instrument of neighbouring Pakistan. Without the means or the will among Canada and NATO to engage Pakistan politically, or to take the war across the border, there was little chance that Canadian forces could secure and build a safe Afghanistan.

Where do peace talks stand?

The preliminary framework described on Monday was the product of six days of talks in Doha, Qatar, between the American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban delegation.

Under the outline, the Taliban would be required to ensure that terrorist groups could not use Afghan territory the way that Al Qaeda did in the past. In addition, the Taliban would have to make a pair of concessions that they have doggedly opposed: agreeing to a cease-fire and talking directly with the Afghan government.

Those issues could still upend the latest round of talks, and Mr. Khalilzad has said that he is seeking ways, including assistance from regional countries, to persuade the Taliban to meet the Afghan side and agree to a cease-fire. But the framework is the biggest tangible step yet toward ending the war.

Afghan history is certainly littered with occasions when foreign invaders were humiliated. But there have also been many cases when foreign armies penetrated the country and inflicted major defeats. In 330BC, Alexander the Great marched through the area of central Asia that is now Afghanistan, meeting little opposition. More than a millennium later, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan also brushed resistance aside.

Since Afghanistan emerged as a modern state, there have been three wars with Britain. The British invasion of 1839 produced initial victory for the intruders followed by stunning defeat followed by a second victory. In 1878, the British invaded again. Though they suffered a major defeat at Maiwand, their main army beat the Afghans. The British then re-drew the frontier of British India up to the Khyber Pass, and Afghanistan had to cede various frontier areas. In the Third Anglo-Afghan war, the fighting was launched by the Afghans. Amanullah Khan sent troops into British India in 1919. Within a month they were forced to retreat, in part because British planes bombed Kabul in one of the first displays of airpower in central Asia. The war ended in tactical victory for the British but their troop losses were twice those of the Afghans, suggesting the war was a strategic defeat. The British abandoned control of Afghan foreign policy at last.

The results of the three Anglo-Afghan wars undermine the claim that Afghans always defeat foreigners. What is true is that foreigners have always had a hard time occupying the country for long. The British came to understand that. From bitter experience they kept their interventions short, preferring domination over foreign affairs to the option of colonisation that they adopted in India.

2. The Soviet invasion led to a civil war and western aid for the Afghan resistance

Armed opposition to the government in Kabul long pre-dated the arrival of Soviet troops in December 1979. Every one of the Pakistan-based Afghan mujahideen leaders who became famous during the 1980s as the Peshawar Seven and were helped by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China had gone into exile and taken up arms before December 1979, many of them years earlier. As Islamists, they opposed the secular and modernising tendencies of Daoud Khan, [the Afghan PM] who toppled his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in 1973.

Western backing for these rebels had also begun before Soviet troops arrived. It served western propaganda to say the Russians had no justification for entering Afghanistan in what the west called an aggressive land grab. In fact, US officials saw an advantage in the mujahedin rebellion which grew after a pro-Moscow government toppled Daoud in April 1978. In his memoirs, Robert Gates, then a CIA official and later defence secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama, recounts a staff meeting in March 1979 where CIA officials asked whether they should keep the mujahideen going, thereby "sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire". The meeting agreed to fund them to buy weapons.

3. The USSR suffered a massive military defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of the mujahideen

This is one of the most persistent myths of Afghan history. It has been trumpeted by every former mujahideen leader, from Osama bin Laden and Taliban commanders to the warlords in the current Afghan government. It is also accepted unthinkingly as part of the western narrative of the war. Some western politicians go so far as to say that the alleged Soviet defeat in Afghanistan helped to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. On this they agree with Bin Laden and al-Qaida's other leaders, who claim they destroyed one superpower and are on their way to destroying another.

The reality is the Afghan mujahideen did not defeat the Soviets on the battlefield. They won some important encounters, notably in the Panjshir valley, but lost others. In sum, neither side defeated the other. The Soviets could have remained in Afghanistan for several more years but they decided to leave when Gorbachev calculated that the war had become a stalemate and was no longer worth the high price in men, money and international prestige. In private, US officials came to the same conclusion about Soviet strength, although they only admitted it publicly later. Morton Abramowitz, who directed the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the time, said in 1997: "In 1985, there was a real concern that the [mujahideen] were losing, that they were sort of being diminished, falling apart. Losses were high and their impact on the Soviets was not great."

4. The CIA's supply of Stinger missiles to the mujahideen forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan

This myth of the 1980s was given new life by George Crile's 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War and the 2007 film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks as the loud-mouthed congressman from Texas. Both book and movie claim that Wilson turned the tide of the war by persuading Ronald Reagan to supply the mujahideen with shoulder-fired missiles that could shoot down helicopters. The Stingers certainly forced a shift in Soviet tactics. Helicopter crews switched their operations to night raids since the mujahideen had no night-vision equipment. Pilots made bombing runs at greater height, thereby diminishing the accuracy of the attacks, but the rate of Soviet and Afghan aircraft losses did not change significantly from what it was in the first six years of the war.

The Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was made in October 1985, several months before Stinger missiles entered Afghanistan in significant quantities in the autumn of 1986. None of the secret Politburo discussions that have since been declassified mentioned the Stingers or any other shift in mujahideen equipment as the reason for the policy change from indefinite occupation to preparations for retreat.

5. After the Soviets withdrew, the west walked away

One of the most common promises western politicians made after they toppled the Taliban in 2001 was that "this time" the west would not walk away, "as we did after the Russians pulled out". Afghans were surprised to hear these promises. They remembered history in rather a different way. Far from forgetting about Afghanistan in February 1989, the US showed no let-up in its close involvement with the mujahideen. Washington blocked the Soviet-installed President Mohammad Najibullah's offers of concessions and negotiations and continued to arm the rebels and jihadis in the hope they would quickly overthrow his Moscow-backed regime.

This was one of the most damaging periods in recent Afghan history when the west and Pakistan, along with mujahideen intransigence, undermined the best chance of ending the country's civil war. The overall effect of these policies was to prolong and deepen Afghanistan's destruction, as Charles Cogan, CIA director of operations for the Middle East and south Asia, 1979–1984, later recognised. "I question whether we should have continued on this momentum, this inertia of aiding the mujahideen after the Soviets had left. I think that was probably, in retrospect, a mistake," he said.

6. The mujahideen overthrew Kabul's regime and won a major victory over Moscow

The key factor that undermined Najibullah was an announcement made in Moscow in September 1991, shortly after a coup mounted against Gorbachev by Soviet hard-liners collapsed. His longtime rival, Boris Yeltsin, who headed the Russian government, emerged in a dominant position. Yeltsin was determined to cut back on the country's international commitments and his government announced that from 1 January 1992, no more arms would be delivered to Kabul. Supplies of petrol, food and all other aid would also cease.

The decision was catastrophic for the morale of Najibullah's supporters. The regime had survived the departure of Soviet troops for more than two years but now would truly be alone. So, in one of the great ironies of history, it was Moscow that toppled the Afghan government that Moscow had sacrificed so many lives to keep in place.

The dramatic policy switch became evident when Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of one of the mujahideen groups, was invited to Moscow in November 1991. In a statement after the meeting, Boris Pankin, the Soviet foreign minister, "confirmed the necessity for a complete transfer of state power to an interim Islamic government". In today's context, the announcement could be compared to an invitation by Hillary Clinton to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to come to Washington and a declaration the US wanted power transferred from Karzai to the Taliban.

The move led to a wave of defections as several of Najibullah's army commanders and political allies switched sides and joined the mujahideen. Najibullah's army was not defeated. It just melted away.

7. The Taliban invited Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a safe haven

Osama bin Laden got to know the mujahideen leaders during the anti-Soviet jihad after traveling to Peshawar in 1980. Two years later, his construction company built tunnels in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan that the CIA helped him to finance and which he was later to use to escape US bombing after 9/11.

He returned to Saudi Arabia, disillusioned with the Saudi royal family for collaborating with the US in the Gulf war against Saddam Hussein in 1990–1991. In Afghanistan, there was cause for disappointment too. The mujahideen's incompetence was preventing them from toppling Najibullah. Bin Laden turned his attention to jihad against the west and moved to Sudan in 1992. After Sudan came under pressure to deport him in 1996, Bin Laden had to find somewhere else to live. Najibullah had finally lost power in Afghanistan, and Bin Laden decided it might be the best place after all.

His return in May 1996 was prompted less by a revival of interest in Afghan politics than by his need for a safe haven. His return was sponsored by the mujahideen leaders with whom he had become friendly during the anti-Soviet struggle. He flew to Jalalabad on a plane chartered by Rabbani's government that also carried scores of Arab fighters.

It was only after the Taliban captured Jalalabad from the mujahideen that he was obliged to switch his allegiance or leave Afghanistan again. He chose the first option.

8. The Taliban were by far the worst government Afghanistan has ever had

A year after the Taliban seized power, I interviewed UN staff, foreign aid workers and Afghans in Kabul. The Taliban had softened their ban on girls' education and were turning a blind eye to the expansion of informal "home schools" in which thousands of girls were being taught in private flats. The medical faculty was about to re-open for women to teach midwives, nurses, and doctors since women patients could not be treated by men. The ban on women working outside the home was also lifted for war widows and other needy women.

Afghans recalled the first curbs on liberty were imposed by the mujahideen before the Taliban. From 1992, cinemas were closed and TV films were shortened so as to remove any scene in which women and men walked or talked together, let alone touched each other. Women announcers were banned from TV.

The burqa was not compulsory, as it was to become under the Taliban, but all women had to wear the head-scarf, or hijab, unlike in the years of Soviet occupation and the Najibullah regime that followed. The mujahideen refused to allow women to attend the UN's fourth world conference on women in Beijing in 1995. Crime was met with the harshest punishment. A wooden gallows was erected in a park near the main bazaar in Kabul where convicts were hanged in public. Above all, Afghans liked the security provided by the Taliban in contrast to the chaos between 1992 and 1996 when mujahideen groups fought over the capital, launching shells and rockets indiscriminately. Some 50,000 Kabulis were killed.

9. The Taliban are uniquely harsh oppressors of Afghan women

Afghanistan has a long history of honour killings and honour mutilation, going back before the Taliban period and continuing until today. They occur in every part of the country and are not confined to the culture of the Pashtun, the ethnic group from which most Taliban come.

Women are brutalised by a tribal custom for settling disputes known as baad, which treats young girls as voiceless commodities. They are offered in compensation to another family, often to an elderly man, for unpaid debts or if a member of that family has been killed by a relative of the girl.

On the wider issue of gender rights, the Taliban are rightly accused of relegating Afghan women to second-class citizenship. But to single the Taliban out as uniquely oppressive is not accurate. Violence against women has a long pedigree in all communities in Afghanistan, among the Shia Hazara and the northern Tajiks, as well as the Sunni Pashtun.

Underage marriage is common across Afghanistan, and among all ethnic groups. According to Unifem (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) and the Afghan independent human rights commission, 57% of Afghan marriages are child marriages – where one partner is under the age of 16. In a study of 200 underage wives, 40% had been married between the ages of 10 and 13, 32.5% at 14, and 27.5% at 15. In many communities, women are banned from leaving the house or family compound. This leads to a host of other disabilities. Women are not allowed to take jobs. Girls are prevented from going to school. In the minds of western politicians and the media, these prohibitions are often associated exclusively with the Taliban. Yet the forced isolation of women by keeping them confined is a deep-seated part of Afghan rural culture. It is also found in poorer parts of the major cities.

10. The Taliban have little popular support

In 2009, Britain's Department for International Development commissioned an Afghan NGO to conduct surveys on how people compared the Taliban to the Afghan government. The results suggested Nato's campaign to demonise the Taliban was no more effective than the Soviet effort to demonise the mujahedin.

One survey reported on Helmandis' attitudes to justice systems. More than half the male respondents called the Taliban "completely trustworthy and fair". The Taliban took money through taxes on farm crops and road tolls but did not demand bribes. According to the survey, "Most ordinary people associate the [national] government with practices and behaviours they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of Northerners)."

Does the US understand why Afghans join the Taliban? Do Afghans understand why the US is in their country? Without clear answers, no counter-insurgency strategy can succeed. A 2009 survey commissioned by DFID in three key provinces asked what led people to join the Taliban. Out of 192 who responded, only 10 supported the government. The rest saw it as corrupt and partisan. Most supported the Taliban, at least what they called the "good Taliban", defined as those who showed religious piety, attacked foreign forces but not Afghans and delivered justice quickly and fairly. They did not like Pakistani Taliban and Taliban linked to narcotics. Afghans did not like al-Qaida, but did not equate the Taliban with this Arab-led movement.

Since the US-led invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has never been as insecure as it is now. The Taliban control more territory than at any point since the removal of their regime 17 years ago.

The Afghan war has already become the longest war in US history. With the passage of time, the conflict has not only become more intense - it has also become more complicated. The attacks are becoming bigger, more frequent, more widespread and much deadlier. Both sides - the Taliban and the US/Nato-backed Afghan government - are trying to gain the upper hand.

On 10 August, the Taliban entered Ghazni, a strategic provincial capital on a key highway south of Kabul, before the Afghan security forces supported by US advisors and air strikes pushed them back. On 15 May, the Taliban entered the capital of Farah province in western Afghanistan, close to the Iranian border.

Many Taliban fighters are killed and injured as they are pushed back after attacks on provincial capitals, but such attacks have a huge propaganda value for the group and boost their morale and recruitment. The insurgents also take weapons and vehicles with them as they retreat. Many other towns and district centres remain under constant Taliban threat.

Large parts of provinces like Helmand and Kandahar - where hundreds of US, UK and other foreign troops were killed - are now under Taliban control. Meanwhile, civilian casualties are at an unprecedented level. According to the UN, more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in 2017, and the number is expected to be even higher in 2018.

'We're All Handcuffed in This Country.' Why Afghanistan Is Still the Worst Place in the World to Be a Woman

I t was a sunny morning in early December last year when 23-year-old Khadija set herself on fire. She kissed her three-month old son Mohammed goodbye and said a short prayer.

&ldquoPlease God, stop this suffering,&rdquo she pleaded in the sun-soaked courtyard of her home in Herat, Afghanistan as she poured kerosene from a copper lamp over her small frame. She then struck a match. The last thing she heard were birds chirping.

The next morning, she realized her prayer had gone unanswered. Khadija, who asked TIME not to publish her last name or her family’s, woke up at Herat Hospital in Afghanistan&rsquos only burn unit, her body blanketed in third-degree burns and bandages.

&ldquoI am not alive, but I am not dead,&rdquo Khadija told me later that week, crying and gripping the hands of her sister, Aisha. &ldquoI tried running away and I failed.&rdquo Like the majority of Afghan women, Khadija was a victim of domestic abuse. For four years, she said, her husband beat her and told her that she&rsquos ugly and dumb &ndash &ldquoa nobody.&rdquo

&ldquoWomen never have any choices,&rdquo Khadija said last December in the hospital, as tears streamed down her face, a barely recognizable charred patchwork of fresh scars. &ldquoIf I did, I wouldn&rsquot have married him. We&rsquore all handcuffed in this country.&rdquo

Khadija’s decision to set herself on fire prompted her husband to be arrested on charges of domestic violence, an unusual situation in a country where abuse against women is rarely criminalized. But even while he was serving his prison sentence, Khadija felt more trapped than when she tried to take her own life. Her husband&rsquos parents, who were looking after her son, issued Khadija an ultimatum: If she would tell the police that she lied&mdashthat her husband didn&rsquot actually abuse her&mdashand if she returned home, then she could see her son. If she refused, she would never see him again.

In a country racked by decades of war and a dearth of resources, Khadija&rsquos story shows how women in Afghanistan are struggling to live with dignity. It also highlights how, in the face of little governmental support and dwindling international aid, women are stepping in to help one another.

Meet Khadija and the doctors trying to save her life in the video at the top of this story. (Video by Beth Murphy.)

It wasn&rsquot supposed to be like this for Afghanistan, the country of 35 million people where America has waged its longest war. The war was billed, in part, as &ldquoa fight for the rights and dignity of women.&rdquo The Taliban ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, a period in which women were essentially invisible in public life, barred from going to school or working. In a 2001 radio address to the nation, First Lady Laura Bush urged Americans to &ldquojoin our family in working to ensure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan.&rdquo In 2004, President George W. Bush declared victory in the country.

But seventeen years and almost $2 trillion later, the country is still in turmoil as the Taliban maintains its grip on almost 60 percent of the country, the most territory it has controlled since 2001. In October, the U.N. said Afghan civilian deaths were the highest since 2014: from January to September 2018, at least 2,798 civilians were killed and more than 5,000 others injured. Gallup&rsquos most recent survey of Afghans, conducted in July, revealed strikingly low levels of optimism: Afghans&rsquo ratings of their own lives are lower than in any country in any previous year.

As in all war-torn societies, women suffer disproportionately. Afghanistan is still ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. Despite Afghan government and international donor efforts since 2001 to educate girls, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate, while 70-80 percent face forced marriage, many before the age of 16. A September watchdog report called the USAID&rsquos $280 million Promote program &ndash billed the largest single investment that the U.S. government has ever made to advance women&rsquos rights globally &ndash a flop and a waste of taxpayer&rsquos money.

Government statistics from 2014 show that 80 percent of all suicides are committed by women, making Afghanistan one of the few places in the world where rates are higher among women. Psychologists attribute this anomaly to an endless cycle of domestic violence and poverty. The 2008 Global Rights survey found that nearly 90 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic abuse.

&ldquoIt hurts me to say this, but the situation is only getting worse,&rdquo said Jameela Naseri, a 31-year-old lawyer at Medica Afghanistan, an NGO established by German-based Medica Mondiale, defending women and girls in war and crisis zones throughout the world. Naseri oversees Khadija&rsquos case, as well as the cases of dozens of other women who are seeking refuge or divorce from allegedly abusive husbands. In the face of what she calls &ldquoa war against women,&rdquo she is leading an informal but determined coalition of female psychologists, doctors and activists in Herat who take on cases like Khadija&rsquos.

&ldquoI meet a new Khadija almost every day,&rdquo she said, while fielding a call from an activist. Earlier that week, a man claimed his wife had died from a longstanding illness but activists suspect he murdered her. &ldquoWe do the best to help these women, but sometimes we can&rsquot. That&rsquos hard to accept.&rdquo

Herat, a province in western Afghanistan near the border of Iran, has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the country and some of the highest rates of suicide among women. Psychologist Naema Nikaed, who was working with Khadija, said she handles several cases of attempted suicide every week. Most go unreported due to fear of tarnishing a family&rsquos honor.

&ldquoThe government wants to say they&rsquore prioritizing women,&rdquo a female Afghan diplomat told me, speaking on condition of anonymity during the NATO Summit in Brussels in July. &ldquoBut they&rsquore really not. Supporting women in Afghanistan is something people all over the world pay lip service to, but money and aid never get to them. It&rsquos eaten by corruption, the monster of war.&rdquo Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the fourth most corrupt country in the world, noting that corruption hampers humanitarian aid from getting where it needs to go.

At the NATO summit, I asked President Ashraf Ghani why two-thirds of girls are still out of school. He largely blamed the numbers on ill-conceived, misguided Western aid efforts that fail to acknowledge the realities on the ground.

&ldquoTo get to the very nitty gritty, how many girls schools at the age of puberty have a toilet? That&rsquos fundamental,&rdquo he said. &ldquoHow many girl schools are three kilometers away? The issue here is that international experts were male-centric. They talked about gender but their pamphlets were glossy and totally lacking content.&rdquo

But activists say his administration has failed to take responsibility for clear backslides in women&rsquos rights. In 2015, 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death by a mob in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Quran. The government did little to mete out justice and ignored demands for more action to combat violence against women.

What&rsquos more, in February 2018, Afghanistan passed into law a new criminal code that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) hailed as a milestone in the country&rsquos criminal justice reform. However, one chapter of the code was removed before it was passed: the chapter penalizing violence against women. In June, a United Nations report took the Afghan criminal justice system to task for ignoring violence against women.

&ldquoWomen&rsquos rights were supposed to be the success story of the 2001 invasion,&rdquo Naseri said. &ldquoBut the legacy of war is still killing our women.&rdquo

Naseri knows this legacy all too well. Her own mother was forced to marry her father when she was only 12 years old and says she was then abused for years. In order to go to school, Naseri and her mother crafted lies so that her father would let her leave the house. They told him she was going to the mosque or to Quran studies. School wasn&rsquot a place for girls, he contended. Eventually, they convinced him to let her attend university she became the first and only woman in her family with a degree.

In the face of so much oppression, Naseri vowed to become a lawyer and help women like her own mother and sister, who was forced into marriage at the age of 14.

&ldquoAfghan women need to take matters into our own hands. We can&rsquot wait for the government and international charities to save or liberate us,&rdquo she said in her office at Medica. Across the hall, a 16-year-old girl named Sahar sat waiting to speak to Naseri. Her mother brought her to Medica after she tried to jump off the sixth-floor balcony of their building. She was to be married off to her cousin in days, and said her uncle had been raping her since she was just 10.

&ldquoIn doing this work alone, the risks are high. At any moment, we could be killed,&rdquo Naseri said. Not a week goes by, she said, that she doesn&rsquot receive death threats. Just last year, an angry mob of men came to the center threatening to burn it to the ground, claiming Naseri was promoting divorce and damaging the fabric of Afghan society.

&ldquoI know what it&rsquos like to be the victim,&rdquo Naseri said. While at university, she fell in love with a classmate. She says she is the first woman in her family whose marriage wasn&rsquot arranged.

In March, on International Women&rsquos Day, she gave birth to a boy. &ldquoI refuse to bring my son into a world where he thinks women are second-class citizens.&rdquo

Last December, the halls of Herat Hospital were lined with patients sitting on the floor, waiting for assistance. Everything is off-white: the chairs, the walls, the floors. Moans of pain echo through the hospital&rsquos burn unit.

Khadija&rsquos doctor, 29-year-old Hasina Ersad, visited her a few times a day for months. &ldquoI saw women like Khadija all my life,&rdquo said Ersad. &ldquoShe&rsquos the reason I wanted to become a doctor.&rdquo

Khadija said her abuse began as soon as she got married. Her father, Mohammed, was poor and sold her off. Her husband promised her that she could go to school and pursue her goal of becoming an esthetician, but by the first week of marriage she learned that would likely never happen. Her mother-in-law told her that her purpose was to raise children. After several miscarriages, she finally gave birth to her son, Mohammed. She thought the abuse would stop once he arrived, but it only got worse.

Khadija&rsquos sister Aisha said domestic abuse is pervasive. &ldquoMy husband has hit me for years,&rdquo she shrugged.

Aisha&rsquos husband is 71 years old she is 26. Over the years, she said she has thought about getting a divorce, but she knows the reality: she&rsquod lose custody of her three children and likely never marry again. In cases of divorce, women have custody of their children up until the age of 7, then children are given to their fathers.

&ldquoWe weren&rsquot lucky girls,&rdquo Aisha said as Khadija struggles to nod in agreement. &ldquoActually, no girl in Afghanistan is lucky.&rdquo

Khadija&rsquos psychologist Naema Nikaed, one of the few in Afghanistan who counsel suicide survivors, said she and her colleagues have witnessed an uptick in suicides among women over the past few years.

&ldquoIf the government doesn&rsquot start prioritizing the lives of women, then we will be in a forever war here in Afghanistan,&rdquo she said. Earlier that day, Nikaed had visited a 15-year-old patient who overdosed that morning on unidentified tablets from a pharmacy.

&ldquoIt&rsquos really only up to us &ndash the women like Jameela, myself and others &ndash to fight this discrimination and to save lives. No one can save us but ourselves.&rdquo

When Khadija was three, her mother died from childbirth complications, leaving their father Mohammed to raise Khadija and her four siblings. (Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.)

&ldquoI always wanted to give my daughters a better life, but how could I?&rdquo Mohammed asks as he waits on a bustling street corner to find daily labor. It&rsquos a cold December morning and he and other men warm their hands over a makeshift fire. He&rsquos only 50 years old, but his face prematurely droops from years of depression and destitution.

Both of Mohammed&rsquos parents died when he was one he said he grew up with an abusive uncle who stole his land. &ldquoWar has affected this whole country,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt&rsquos all we know and it has made us broken and blind.&rdquo

When Khadija was 15, he began shopping around for dowries. The highest bid came from a working-class family in Herat with a &ldquogood enough&rdquo reputation. Mohammed received $3,400 for Khadija.

Mohammed said he understands that his daughter is unhappy, but that she has no choice. Even if her husband is abusive, he is resolute about what his daughter should do: she must stay with him. &ldquoI can&rsquot take care of her. I wish I could, but she&rsquos better off with them,&rdquo he said. &ldquoTrust me, she&rsquos better off.&rdquo

To get to Khadija&rsquos and her parents-in-law&rsquos home, you pass through a maze of trash-strewn streets and small corner shops selling nothing more than soda and chips. On the corner, there&rsquos a tiny pre-school filled with little boys in blue shirts next to a beauty store where sometimes Khadija would work &ndash her only reprieve from home life. In the family&rsquos small living room, Khadija’s in-laws told me their son “never touched” Khadija and that because of her, they had lost their reputation. When their son called them from prison, where he was granted one call a day, he told me he was an innocent man.

Naseri&rsquos close friend, Hassina Nikzad, the director of Afghan Women’s Network, visited Khadija weekly and reminded her that she could file for a divorce. &ldquoBut where will I go? Mom is dead and dad is old,&rdquo she cried to her sister, Aisha.

Nikzad suggested that she could move to a shelter and learn a trade like tailoring. Khadija shook her head and looked down.

Last December, Nikzad told me she wasn&rsquot sure Khadija would go through with the divorce. &ldquoIt&rsquos often easier to stay with the pain. Starting a new life in Afghanistan seems impossible,&rdquo she said. &ldquoWe&rsquore not given any chances, let alone a second chance.&rdquo

Last June when Khadija left the hospital, she wearily told Naseri that she had made up her mind. Although Naseri suggested she move to a shelter, Khadija decided to return to her husband&rsquos parents. The pain of not seeing her son was too much to bear and raising a child in a shelter seemed too daunting.

But after a month of living with her parents-in-law, Khadija called Naseri in the middle of the night, crying. Her parents-in-law had refused to let her touch her son, Khadija said. And her husband kept saying that he planned to “punish” her when he was released from prison.

Because there was no adequate shelter space in Herat, Khadija decided to stay in her father&rsquos one-room apartment. But her step-mother made it clear that Khadija wasn&rsquot welcome there.

&ldquoI don&rsquot regret doing what I did, but I&rsquom still in chains,&rdquo Khadija told me in November over Skype. She hadn&rsquot seen her son in months. &ldquoOne day, I will try to explain to my son why I did this. I hope he understands.&rdquo Naseri held her as she sobbed.

In late November, Khadija&rsquos husband was released from prison. Soon after, Naseri tried to contact Khadija but couldn’t reach her. Her phone has been turned off since. Naseri suspects Khadija fled across the border to Iran. It’s unlikely she will see her son again&mdashat least not for a while.

To Naseri, Khadija is one of far too many invisible victims in the country’s war against women. &ldquoI could have been Khadija,&rdquo Naseri said. &ldquoWho knows what separates us? Nothing does.&rdquo

Reporting for this story was made possible with a grant from the International Women&rsquos Media Foundation and support from The GroundTruth Project.