Afghanistan Conflict

views updated

Afghanistan Conflict

The invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces in October 2001 began as a quick and effective strike, ousting a tyrannical government and sending terrorist forces into hiding. For a number of reasons, the Afghanistan War dragged on for years after the invasion, allowing the enemy a chance to regain some of its power.

Retaliation for a terrorist attack

Within hours of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the administration of President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) determined that members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network were responsible for the attacks. Two airliners crashed into the Twin Towers of New York City's World Trade Center, a third airliner crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth jet crashed into a Pennsylvania field before arriving at its intended target. Al-Qaeda was led by the Saudi Arabian multimillionaire Osama bin Laden (1957–) and others who had embraced a radical form of Islam while fighting in Afghanistan during that nation's ten-year war with the Soviet Union (1979–89). Al-Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan, where the ruling Islamic regime, the Taliban, had been providing it shelter. After September 11, the Bush administration demanded that the Taliban turn bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders over to the United States. The Taliban stalled for weeks, claiming no knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts.

The Bush administration prepared for war. Since an invasion of Afghanistan could be viewed as an act of self-defense, the administration did not seek United Nations approval for a multinational force. Instead, Bush called on the help of Great Britain. Canada and Australia later also contributed troops to the allied force. This mission was named Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).

The invasion

On October 7, U.S. and British forces launched air strikes against Afghanistan. At the same time, the United States provided the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of Afghan military groups that had long opposed

the Taliban, with funding and support for an offensive against the Taliban on the ground. The strikes initially focused on the area in and around the cities of Kabul, Jalalabad, and Qandah r. Within a few days, most al-Qaeda training sites had been severely damaged, and the Taliban's air defenses had been destroyed. The air strikes then targeted the Taliban's communications systems.

By November 9, 2001, the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif had fallen to the Northern Alliance; four days later, a combination of allied air assaults and ground maneuvers by the Northern Alliance forced the Taliban to surrender Kabul, the capital. On November 18, the Taliban announced that it would no longer provide protection to bin Laden, but the U.S. government was no longer inclined to believe the regime's promises. A week later, opposition Afghan leaders met in Bonn, Germany, with U.S. support to plan the post-Taliban government.

Some five hundred U.S. Marines landed in Afghanistan on November 26, the first major entry of American troops. Within hours of the marines establishing their base, U.S. planes launched air strikes against a Taliban stronghold outside the southern city of Qandahār.

The Taliban surrendered Qandah r on December 7. But both bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar (c. 1959–) had escaped from the city. December 16 saw the fall of Tora Bora, a cave complex that had provided a fort for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Six days later, on December 22, a temporary Afghan government was established, with Hamid Karzai (1957–) sworn in as chairman. At that point, the Bush administration's invasion appeared to be complete and successful, but in many ways the war had just begun.

Afghan-Pakistani border region

Although the opening offensives of the war came to a close at the end of 2001, the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces had not given up. They had simply moved into the region that surrounds the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There they were able to reorganize more or less in the open. The Taliban arose from a large tribal group called the Pashtuns, who number about forty million and live in tribal units in eastern and southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. When Pashtuns in Pakistan learned of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, they joined with other anti-Western groups in the area to offer refuge to the fleeing Taliban and to al-Qaeda. Pakistan had long been an ally of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the new war strengthened ties between the Taliban and certain Pakistani groups. The president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf (1943–), had vowed to help the United States in its war against terrorism, but the Pakistani government was apparently unable to stop the buildup of insurgents in the remote regions of northwestern Pakistan.

In the border regions in 2002, the Taliban began to build training camps and recruit new soldiers from both sides of the border. The new recruits soon began launching car bombs and suicide bombings against the U.S.-U.K.-Northern Alliance coalition. They managed to regain control, at least temporarily, of areas that had already been liberated by the coalition forces.

On March 2, 2002, the United States launched Operation Anaconda, the largest ground operation of the war. Involving some two thousand U.S., Afghan, and allied troops, its purpose was to eliminate any Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters remaining in the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan. An estimated one thousand to five thousand al-Qaeda and Taliban forces had gathered in the Shahikot mountains in early 2002, where they could use the high-altitude caves to fire upon approaching coalition soldiers from relative safety. When the Anaconda offensive came to a close on March 17, the mountain caves were cleared and there were many enemy casualties, but hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban soldiers escaped once more into the border areas of Pakistan.

To build a state, or not

Afghanistan had long been a very poor country. Many Afghan people hoped that, after ousting the Taliban, the United States would bring in enough money and resources to supply stability and build a new economy. Among the top Bush administration officials there was disagreement. To commit large amounts of troops and money to bring political and economic stability was seen as “state-building” or “nation-building,” the attempt of a powerful country to build the political and economic institutions of a weak or failing nation, and most conservatives opposed such a plan, saying it overstepped the federal government's authority. The administration wavered on these issues, announcing major reconstruction efforts but not providing the number of soldiers or amounts of money that the Afghan advisers requested.

NATO steps in

In 2002, the United States began to talk with other countries, mainly European, who were willing to help stabilize Afghanistan. In this peacekeeping and reconstruction plan, called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Germany was to train an Afghan police force, Japan would disarm the warlords and their armies, England would fight the drug business, Italy would help Afghanistan reform its court system, and the United States would train a large Afghan army. The United States, wanting to carry out its war on terrorists, committed an additional eight thousand troops to searching out al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. None of these efforts was very successful.

In November 2003 Zalmay Khalilzad (1951–), an Afghan American, was appointed to serve as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Upon becoming ambassador, Khalilzad convinced the Bush administration to put more resources into the war in Afghanistan. He played a very strong role in his year and a half as ambassador, from November 2003 until June 2005. Khalilzad helped the new government draft a constitution, hold democratic elections (in which Karzai was elected president), and organize a parliament. But as things began to improve, President Bush urgently needed him for another post—in Iraq.

In March 2003, the Bush administration had launched an attack on the nation of Iraq. (See Iraq Invasion .) At first, the engagement went smoothly and did not require the efforts of the military personnel in Afghanistan. By 2005, though, the experienced military leadership in Afghanistan were being recruited in large numbers to help calm the insurgency (uprising) in Iraq.

At the end of 2005, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO; a mutual security and self-defense agreement formed in 1949 among European and North American nations to block the military threat of the Soviet Union) took command of the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan. NATO forces there were comprised of 31,000 to 37,000 soldiers from 37 countries; approximately one-third of them were from the United States. The NATO mission was to stabilize Afghanistan.

In 2006, Afghanistan experienced a major increase in deadly attacks by suicide bombers and individuals with homemade explosives. The trend continued into 2007. Insurgents poured into Afghanistan from the training camps in the Pakistan borderlands. While pursuing the insurgents, NATO and U.S. air strikes have killed a large number of Afghan civilians, resulting in widespread anti-American and anti-Western sentiment. Poverty in Afghanistan was widespread, and years of war had taken a heavy toll on the population.

The U.S. Department of Defense announced in early 2008 that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was around twenty thousand, the highest number since the war began in October 2001. An additional three thousand troops were expected to be sent there by summer to combat the increasingly formidable Taliban forces.