Note: This article was originally written for a university class on Eurasian politics and security. It discusses how the war’s momentum has changed from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. There’s more to explore and more complexities that have arisen since Trump was elected in 2016, but I’ve saved those for a later discussion.
American diplomat George Kennan warned that war tends to change momentum once it gets going, evolving from the initial purpose into something entirely different by the end.1 American involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be encompassed by that idea. What began as a desire to preserve and promote American values, exacerbated by an attack on American soil, has become a much more complicated entanglement with various interests and groups in the region. Furthermore, it has facilitated an “identity crisis” in Pakistan, which has led to a military state that the U.S. has had to contend with even while cooperating with it.1 For Afghanistan’s part, it has remained a country whose stability has often been neglected in favor of other states’ competing interests. While Afghanistan has served as the main stage of the conflict between American interests and al Qaeda, the Taliban, and later the Islamic State (ISIS), it has also developed into a proxy for Pakistan’s interests in the Kashmir insurgency and the U.S.’s interests in Iraq.
To discuss how the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan has evolved, it helps to look at the U.S.’s history in the region. American involvement can be traced back to the Afghan-Soviet War. The U.S. had an ideological interest in pushing back the Soviets to prevent the spread of communism, and it used Pakistan to aid in achieving this goal. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) recruited Pashtun Mujahedin from Afghanistan on behalf on the U.S., who provided them with weapons and funding. In total, the CIA provided over $20 billion in funding, essentially lining the ISI’s pockets and setting the stage for Pakistan to become a major player in the future of Afghanistan.2 Crucially, the U.S. did not remain in Afghanistan to stabilize and rebuild once the Soviets retreated, a situation it would duplicate in the post-9/11 war and that would play a major role in the evolution of American involvement in the region. It can be argued that if the U.S. had stayed in Afghanistan in the 1990s to rebuild, the situation would be different from what we know today. The Taliban was spurred by the chaos of the Mujahedin warlords, who were wreaking havoc on Afghanistan in the wake of the Afghan-Soviet war, and many Afghans initially thought the Taliban would restore order.3 Instead, it turned into a jihadist movement influenced by al Qaeda.
After 9/11, the American response was a swift condemnation of terrorism and invasion of Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda using a combination of conventional warfare and new technology. However, the U.S.’s focus did not remain fully on Afghanistan, as the Bush administration used the war in Afghanistan as an entry into a proxy war in Iraq. The lack of focus on Afghanistan was combined with a detrimental lack of understanding of the complexities in the region. According to retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus, there are two major lessons to be learned from the U.S.’s involvement in Afghanistan: a) a counterinsurgency campaign is significantly more difficult if the host nation’s leadership is not fully cooperative and if the enemy is given sanctuary outside capable areas of operation, and b) before invading a country, one must understand its nuances and be sensitive to national sentiments, while thinking through all possible outcomes and asking if every operation will “take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct.”4 The U.S. did not take either of these considerations into account when entering the post-9/11 war. Instead, it attempted to fight two wars simultaneously in which complex regional interests were at play. As a result, the U.S. has accomplished its initial unilateral goal of taking out Osama bin Laden, but it has failed to reign in the Taliban, which has regrouped, facilitated the growth of ISIS, and spread to further corners of the Middle East. If the U.S. leaves now, it will risk leaving a vacuum for these groups to sow chaos once again, just as it did after the Afghan-Soviet War in the leadup to the 9/11 attacks.
The U.S. relied heavily on help from Pakistan’s president at the time, Pervez Musharraf, and the ISI to find Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda militants. What they did not account for was that Pakistan was simultaneously providing the same type of aid to the Taliban—and thus al Qaeda—that the U.S. had provided to the ISI during the Afghan-Soviet War. The U.S.’s history with Pakistan, like its history with Afghanistan, is fraught with lack of understanding of the nuanced interests in the region. The U.S. failed to consider Pakistan’s long-running enmity with India, which is involved in its support of Pashtun Muslims of which the Taliban is largely composed. The U.S. was taken aback when it discovered that Pakistan was significantly aiding the Taliban and al Qaeda, providing support and sanctuary for their fighters. Pakistan’s dispute with India as well as the American aid to ISI during the Afghan-Soviet War have shaped Pakistan into a state defined by its military. Its role in the evolution of the war has been consistent—a hardline focus on India and constant support of the Pashtun Taliban in hopes of installing a regime in Afghanistan that will be sympathetic to its own interests. The risk Pakistan is taking and perhaps failing to see, however, is that the Taliban will not necessarily remain amenable if it is installed in Afghanistan, which could lead to a new insurgency against Pakistan with little international sympathy for Pakistan due to its current policies.5
Part of the evolution of American involvement in the region has been a new reluctance to jump so quickly into war. This reluctance was highlighted in 2013 when President Obama was hesitant to respond to a chemical attack by the Syrian regime on its opposition and civilians. During his address, Obama said, “I know well that we are weary of war. We’ve ended one war in Iraq. We’re ending another in Afghanistan. And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military.”6 It is true that the Syrian war is not as personal for the U.S., as it is primarily between the Syrian regime and its opposition in the country—although there are several other players involved, including the Taliban and ISIS—but the decisions that have been made regarding involvement in the Middle East since the Bush administration have been largely based on the results of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a lingering sense of fatigue that is felt by the American government and its people.
Kennan said that one may find themselves fighting for something completely different at the end of a war than the purpose with which they originally started.1 The U.S. entered the war in Afghanistan with the purpose of finding and eliminating Osama bin Laden, proclaiming a unilateral war on terror in which the rest of the world was either “with or against” it. In the end, the U.S. is fighting to prevent the very situation from which the war on terror arose and in which it played a large part at the end of the Afghan-Soviet War. It is fighting to keep the situation from devolving into another questionable arena in which any of the groups vying for control will develop into another jihadist movement. Ultimately, American involvement has evolved from a spirited reckoning into a fatigued standstill.
1. Rashid, A. (2009). Descent Into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. New York, New York: Penguin Books.
2. Micallef, J. V. (Dec. 6, 2017). Afghanistan and Pakistan: The Poisoned Legacy of the Durand Line. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-v-micallef/afghanistan-and-pakistan_b_8590918.html.
3. Lawrence, Q. (Dec. 7, 2010). Chaos After Soviet Withdrawal Gave Rise to Taliban. National Public Radio (NPR). Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2010/12/07/131884473/Afghanistan-After-The-Soviet-Withdrawal.
4. Petraeus, D. (Sep. 14, 2017). Reflections on Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. PRISM, 7(1). Retrieved from http://cco.ndu.edu/News/Article/1299605/reflections-on-wars-in-iraq-and-afghanistan/.
5. Katz, M. N. (Jan. 13, 2011). Pakistan and the “War on Terror.” Middle East Policy Council. Retrieved from http://www.mepc.org/commentary/pakistan-and-war-terror.
6. Gaskell, S. (Sep. 1, 2013). How the War on Terror Changed the Way America Fights. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/09/how-the-war-on-terror-changed-the-way-america-fights/279250/.