Afghanistan and the Limits of American Power

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Drew Christiansen SJ

 Drew Christiansen SJ / Politics / 30 September 2021


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Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the refusal of the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, the United States of America invaded Afghanistan with the aim of putting an end to the Taliban regime and expelling al Qaeda from the territory. Within three months Kabul was conquered and a transition government, led by Hamid Karzai, was established. He then won the first presidential elections on October 9, 2004. Ashraf Ghani succeeded him. A considerable NATO contingent remained in the country and the operation “Resolute Support” was inaugurated, with the aim of forming a regular army able to face the Taliban guerrillas.

President Trump, with the signing of the Doha Agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, decided to end the armed conflict in Afghanistan, ordering the total withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from the country by August 31, 2021. On April 14, 2021, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, stated that the alliance had agreed to begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan by May 1. Shortly after the withdrawal began, the Taliban launched an offensive against the Afghan government, advancing rapidly with no resistance from the now dispirited government forces. On August 15, 2021, the Taliban began its occupation of the capital, and many civilians, government officials, and foreign diplomats were evacuated. President Ghani fled Afghanistan and the Taliban proclaimed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

How can we interpret the events that saw the rise of the Emirate? In this essay we will read the events from the US perspective, in order to better understand the decisions taken and what happened. The complexity of events requires further study: the strategic position of this country in the heart of Asia gives Afghanistan considerable geopolitical and strategic importance. Compared to the last two decades, Afghanistan will now see more involvement from its neighboring powers: China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and Turkey.

A first key to our perspective is offered by Akbar Ahmed, a former governor of Waziristan, the Pakistani frontier territory well known for its fierce ungovernability. In The Thistle and the Drone, he argues that in the global war on terror the U.S. is waging a high-tech war against tribal Muslim societies at the edge of civilization.[1]

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