Afghanistan: U.S. Intervention in

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The involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, from the 1950s through the period following the events of 11 September 2001.

The United States was actively involved in Afghanistan during the 1950s through the 1970s. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan ended in 1979 with the assassination of the U.S. ambassador Adolph Dubs in Kabul on 14 February 1979 and with the Soviet invasion the following December. Subsequently, U.S. involvement was indirect, primarily the provision of military aid to the Afghan resistance through the 1980s. After 11 September 2001, U.S. interest in Afghanistan was renewed as it became apparent that al-Qaʿida, the group responsible for the terrorist attack on the United States, was based in Afghanistan and was supported by the Taliban government in Kabul. On 14 September 2001 the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to engage in a military response to the 11 September attacks. Following unsuccessful political attempts to force the Taliban government to expel Osama bin Ladin and his group, the United States began a bombing campaign on 7 October 2001, directed at Taliban military and political installations. By 13 November 2001 the Taliban government had fallen, and a U.S.backed Afghan interim government was formed in December at a meeting sponsored by the United Nations in Bonn, Germany.

By early 2002 the United States had moved to restore political, military, and economic ties with Afghanistan. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul reopened on 17 January 2002, and the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C., opened that same month. U.S. military forces in Afghanistan grew to more than 8,000 troops as the U.S. military undertook the major task of finding and eliminating remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaʿida. The U.S. military rebuilt the former Soviet air base at Bagram, north of Kabul, as its headquarters and established smaller military bases in Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, and Farah.

U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan were led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which focused on rebuilding Afghanistan's infrastructure and dealing with immediate emergency needs. In addition to providing food and shelter for displaced persons, returning refugees, and widows, the U.S. reconstruction effort aimed to rebuild the Afghan educational system, restore agricultural productivity, and rebuild the Afghan transportation system, especially the interurban highways. The Kabul-Kandahar road, which was originally constructed by Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, became an important symbol of U.S. involvement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

On the political side, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan since 11 September 2001 has focused on providing support to the Afghan Transitional Administration, particularly to President Hamid Karzai, and on supporting the process of constitutional reform aimed at creating a representative government in a parliamentary system. The United States supported and financed the Emergency Loya Jerga in June of 2002 and exerted pressure on the ex-king, Zahir Shah, to withdraw from active political leadership. U.S. officials have been placed in the major Afghan ministries to oversee daily operations of the Afghan government.

Despite political, military, and financial support from the United States, a number of problems remain. The Afghan Transitional Administration has been slow to gain credibility in Afghanistan, in part because many Afghans believe this government to have been externally imposed by the Americans without a natural constituency in Afghanistan. Weaknesses of the Afghan government are blamed on the United States; for example, the United States has received criticism over the ethnic composition of the Karzai government, since ethnic Tajiks dominate major cabinet positions, alienating the Pushtun tribes. Human rights groups have cited widespread extortion, lawlessness, and kidnapping by Afghan

police and intelligence officials. These groups accuse the United States of supporting some of the worst offenders and for not doing more to stop the abuses. U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is also complicated by Afghanistan's large opium production. Afghanistan grows more than 70 percent of the world's opium, and the U.S.backed government has had little success in stopping its cultivation or halting its illegal smuggling to neighboring countries.

U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan also have faced problems. In attempting to capture or kill alQaʿida or Taliban forces, the U.S. military inadvertently has caused a number of civilian deaths and dropped bombs on the wrong targets, including as a Red Cross warehouse and a United Nations mine-removal office. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 Afghans have died as the direct or indirect results of U.S. bombing, creating animosity toward the U.S. presence. The U.S. military also has been inadvertently involved in regional conflicts between contentious warlords, some of whom have induced the U.S. military to attack rival warlords by claiming that they are Taliban members.

After several years, the U.S. military has largely failed to accomplish its major goals: The United States has been unable to pacify or bring security to much of Afghanistan; it has been unable to find bin Ladin or Muhammad (Mullah) Omar, head of the Taliban; it has been unable to eliminate the Taliban, which is regrouping; and it has alienated a growing number of Afghans, who are becoming impatient with the U.S. military presence. U.S. reconstruction efforts also have come under criticism. Despite some progress, poverty remains, many children are still not able to go to school, and women still find their lives constrained and must veil when they are in public.

see also afghanistan; bin ladin, osama; karzai, hamid; pushtun; tajiks; taliban.


Human Rights Watch. World Report 2003: Afghanistan. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003.

International Crisis Group. Disarmament and Reintegration in Afghanistan. Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2003.

U.S. Agency for International Development. Afghanistan. Washington, DC: USAID, 2003.

Grant Farr