Afghanistan: The Afghanistan War and Islamic Fundamentalism

The Afghanistan War and Islamic Fundamentalism

In the late 1970s the government faced increasing popular opposition to its social policies. By 1979 guerrilla opposition forces, popularly called mujahidin (“Islamic warriors”), were active in much of the country, fighting both Soviet forces and the Soviet-backed Afghan government. In 1986, Karmal resigned and was replaced by Mohammad Najibullah. The country was devastated by the Afghanistan War (1979–89), which took an enormous human and economic toll. After the Soviet withdrawal, the government steadily lost ground to the guerrilla forces. In early 1992, Kabul was captured, and the guerrilla alliance set up a new government consisting of a 50-member ruling council. Burhanuddin Rabbani was named interim president.

The victorious guerrillas proved unable to unite, however, and the forces of guerrilla leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar launched attacks on the new government. As fighting among various factions continued, Afghanistan was in effect divided into several independent zones, each with its own ruler. Beginning in late 1994 a militia of Pashtun Islamic fundamentalist students, the Taliban, emerged as an increasingly powerful force. In early 1996, as the Taliban continued its attempt to gain control of Afghanistan, Rabbani and Hekmatyar signed a power-sharing accord that made Hekmatyar premier. In September, however, the Taliban, under the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar, captured Kabul and declared themselves the legitimate government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; they imposed a particularly puritanical form of Islamic law in the two thirds of the country they controlled. They also allowed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, to establish an extensive terrorist training complex near Kabul. The Taliban controlled some 90% of the country by 2000, but their government was not generally recognized by the international community (the United Nations recognized President Burhanuddin Rabbani and the Northern Alliance). Continued warfare had caused over a million deaths, while 3 million Afghans remained in Pakistan and Iran as refugees. Adding to the nation's woe, a drought in W and central Asia that began in the late 1990s and continued through the early 2000s was most severe in Afghanistan. In September 2001, in a severe blow to the Northern Alliance, Massoud died as a result of a suicide bomb attack by assassins posing as Arab journalists. Two days after that attack, devastating terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which bin Laden had sanctioned, prompted new demands by U.S. President Bush for his arrest.

When the Taliban refused to hand bin Laden over, the United States launched (Oct., 2001) attacks against Taliban and Al Qaeda (bin Laden's organization) positions and forces. The United States also began providing financial aid and other assistance to the Northern Alliance and other opposition groups. Assisted by U.S. air strikes, opposition forces ousted Taliban and Al Qaeda forces from Afghanistan's major urban areas in November and December. Several thousand U.S. troops began entering the country in November. In early December a pan-Afghan conference in Bonn, Germany, appointed Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun with ties to the former king, as the nation's interim leader, replacing President Rabbani. By Jan., 2002, the Taliban and Al Qaeda had largely lost control of the country, although most of their leaders and unknown numbers of their forces remained at large. Control of the country largely reverted to the regional warlords who held power before the Taliban, and those warlords remained a powerful in subsequent years; other forces, such as that led by Hekmatyar, opposed the new regime. Britain, Canada, and other NATO nations provided forces for various military, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations, and many other nations also agreed to contribute humanitarian aid.

The former king, Muhammad Zahir Shah, returned to the country from exile to convene (June, 2002) a loya jirga (a traditional Afghan grand council) to establish a transitional government. Karzai was elected president (for a two-year term), and the king was declared the “father of the nation.” By the end of 2002, the country had achieved a measure of stability. Reconstruction proceeded slowly, and central governmental control outside Kabul was limited. A return to economic health also was hindered by a persistent drought that continued through 2004. in the Kabul area. A new constitution was approved in Jan., 2004, by a loya jirga. It provided for a strong executive presidency and contained some concessions to minorities, but tensions between the dominant Pashtuns and other ethnic groups remained. Karzai was elected to the presidency in Oct., 2004, in the country's first democratic elections. The vote, which generally split along ethnic lines, was peaceful, but it was marred by some minor difficulties. Karzai's new cabinet consisted largely of technocrats and was ethnically balanced, although Pashtuns generally held the more important posts.

The spring of 2005 was marked by an increase in attacks by the Taliban and their allies. National and provincial legislative elections were held in Sept., 2005; in some locales the balloting was marred by fraud. Tensions with Pakistan increased in early 2006, and by the end of the year President Karzai had accused elements of the Pakistani government of directly supporting the Taliban. May, 2006, saw the U.S.-led coalition launch its largest campaign against Taliban forces since 2001; some 11,000 troops undertook a summer offensive in four S Afghan provinces, where the Taliban had become increasingly stronger and entrenched. In July, NATO assumed responsibility for peacekeeping in S Afghanistan, taking over from the coalition. NATO troops were engaged in significant battles with the Taliban through 2007, particularly in Kandahar prov. NATO took command of all peacekeeping forces in the country, including some 11,000 U.S. troops, in October. In May 2007, NATO forces killed the top Taliban field commander, Mullah Dadullah, but Taliban forces continued to mount guerrilla attacks on the outskirts of the capital and in the north.

During 2007-08, Afghan civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes and other military operations became a source of anger and concern among Afghans. Significant, if sporadic, fighting with insurgents also continued through 2008, as the Taliban mounted some of their most serious attacks since 2002. As the year progressed, U.S. forces mounted strikes against insurgent sanctuaries across the Pakistan border, leading to tensions with Pakistan. In Apr., 2008, President Karzai escaped an assassination attempt unhurt. In July, Karzai accused Pakistani agents of being behind insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, among them a suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Although the majority of the Afghan refugees abroad repatriated in the years following the overthrow of the Taliban, it was estimated in 2008 that some 3 million Afghanis were still refugees, with most of those in Pakistan and Iran, and those numbers did not significantly diminish in subsequent years. Afghanistan continued to suffer from a weak central government and weak economy, which exacerbated the insurgency and led to an increase in illegal drug production. By early 2008, some $25 billion in international development aid had been pledged, and three fifths of that actually spent. The effectiveness of the aid was greatly reduced by government corruption, spending on foreign consultants and companies (sometimes required under the terms of the aid), wasteful spending practices, and sharp imbalances nationally in the distribution of the aid.

In Jan., 2009, the Afghan election commission postponed the presidential election until August. A major U.S. and Afghan offensive against the Taliban in Helmand prov. was launched in July, 2009; at the same time, U.S. forces began a wider use of counterinsurgency tactics in their attempts to secure the Afghan countryside. The Aug., 2009, presidential election was marred by extensive fraud. Preliminary results gave Karzai 55% of the vote, but a review discounted so many ballots that a runoff was required. The runoff election was canceled, however, and Karzai declared the winner when Abdullah Abdullah, his opponent, withdrew in November in protest, asserting that the runoff would also be subject to fraud.

In late 2009, U.S. President Obama announced that U.S. forces would increase by 30,000 combat and training troops, and NATO allies pledged an additional 7,000 troops. The 2010 increase brought the foreign forces supporting the Afghan government to nearly 120,000, with Americans constituting roughly two thirds of the troops. The escalation was designed to counteract Taliban gains, and led to increased fighting and increased American casualties.

In Jan., 2010, the election commissioned postponed the May parliamentary elections to September, because of a lack of funding and concerns with security and logistics. In February NATO and Afghan forces mounted an offensive in Helmand prov. that won control over the strategic town of Marjah by March; later that month more gradual efforts began to reestablish government control over Kandahar. In June. 2010, a three-day national peace jirga [assembly] involving some 1,600 delegates supported Karzai's plans for peace talks with the Taliban, but the Taliban and other Islamist rebels publicly denounced the jirga. In the Sept., 2010, election for the Wolesi Jirga, roughly 40% of the electorate voted, but the election was marred by political violence and fraud. Karzai's government subsequently launched its own investigation into the results, though its legal standing to do so was questionable. In June, 2011, that investigation overturned the results of a quarter of the seats, provoking a crisis with the Wolesa Jirga, where many members rejected the decisions and raised (July) the possibility of impeaching Karzai. Karzai disbanded his tribunal in August, and the election commission then overturned nine results it had previously finalized, but many lower house members also rejected that decision.

Meanwhile, in 2010 the Kabul Bank, the country's largest private bank, with executives and major shareholders who had government connections, came to the brink of collapse due to mismanagement, fraud, and a run on the bank; some $860 million was lost to fraudulent loan schemes. In September the central bank was forced to take control of the bank. In 2011 the unresolved situation with the bank led the World Bank to delay disbursing funds to the country, and the governor of the central bank resigned and fled Afghanistan (June), saying that his life had been threatened in connection with the Kabul Bank investigation.

In June, 2011, after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, U.S. President Obama announced that American forces would be withdrawn at a quickened pace, with some 30,000 troops to leave within a year's time. The troops, which had some success against the Taliban in parts of the south, were increasingly turning their focus toward E Afghanistan. At about the same time, NATO forces began the lengthy process of turning responsibility for security in the country to Afghan forces. In July the head of Kandahar's provincial council, who was Karzai's half-brother and a powerful and controversial figure, was assassinated. In September ex-president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had been leading peace talks with the Taliban, was also assassinated, but subsequently talks between the government and Taliban continued to occur at intervals.

A NATO summit in May, 2012, approved the withdrawal of all foreign combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Relations between the president and NATO forces in the subsequent months were at times strained and complicated, but in June, 2013, Afghan forces assumed overall responsibility for the country's security. As NATO troops were withdrawn from many areas, the Taliban responded with increased attacks, and Afghan forces were stretched and forced to cede control some territory. There also was an increase in civilian deaths and injuries from 2013 after a drop in 2012, and that continued in subsequent years. In some cases Taliban forces succeeding in seizing control (if only for a time) of strategic locations, most notably Kunduz in N Afghanistan in 2015 (also contested in 2016) and in S Afghanistan in 2015–16, and in 2016 Taliban forces were as successful as they had been since they were overthrown.

In Nov., 2013, the United States and Afghanistan negotiated an agreement covering the continued operations of U.S. troops in the country after 2014, but Karzai subsequently refused to sign it until after the Afghan presidential election in 2014. In the election's first round in April, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, placed first with 45% and second with 32% of the vote, respectively. After the runoff in June, Abdullah accused Ghani's supporters of fraud after initial reports suggested Ghani had a million vote lead. The preliminary results, released in July, showed Ghani winning with 56% of the vote, but Abdullah asserted he had won. An international audit of the vote failed to resolve the charges of fraud, but both sides agreed in September to establish a power-sharing government with Ghani as president.

Ghani's government subsequently signed the security agreement with the United States, and in Oct., 2015, the United States announced plans to slow the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. forces, so that some troops would remain in the country until at least 2017. In Sept., 2016, Ghani's government signed a peace accord with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces, although much less significant than the Taliban, had opposed the government since 2002. The Taliban controlled roughly half the country by mid-2017 and in subsequent years increasingly mounted attacks designed to inflict casualties on the police and army as well as mounting attacks on government bases and provincial centers.

The United States, under the new Trump administration, announced (2017) that it would increase U.S. forces by several thousand in support of the Afghan military and abandon any timetable for withdrawal, leading to expectations that U.S. forces would remain into the 2020s. Subsequently, however, the United States engaged in talks with the Taliban and there were reports of planned U.S. withdrawals, but there were no direct negotiations involving the Afghan government, which had concerns about the talks. By late 2019, the United States had reduced its forces in the country by 2,000, leaving it with somewhat more than 12,000 troops, and the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Syria that October raised questions about the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

Parliamentary elections, three years overdue, were held in October, 2018, but were marred by mismanagement and charges of fraud, and parliament did not sit until Apr., 2019. Meanwhile, presidential elections scheduled for Apr., 2019, were postponed until Sept., 2019; the election, held amid some Taliban attacks, was seen as a contest primarily between Ghani and Abdullah, and turnout was much lower than in 2014. Preliminary results, announced in December, indicated that Ghani, had won 50.6% of the vote; Abdullah accused the government of fraud. That tally and Ghani's victory were confirmed in Feb., 2020, but Abdullah continued to assert he was rightful president, and a power-sharing agreement was reached in May.

In March the United States and the Taliban reached an agreement that called for a significant reduction in U.S. and NATO troops by May, and the withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO forces in 14 months, and the United States soon began reducing its forces. The agreement obligated the Taliban to reduce its attacks and cut ties with Al Qaeda, and called for a prisoner swap and negotiations with the Afghan government. Ghani's government, which had not been a party to the talks, offered a conditional, progressive prisoner swap during negotiations, which the Taliban rejected. Both sides nonetheless began releasing some prisoners; at the same time, fighting also continued. Afghanistan was also divided by the competing claims of Ghani and Abdullah. Prisoner releases were finally completed by September, and government and Taliban began talks that month. In November the United States unexpectedly announced an accelerated troop withdrawal that cut the remaining U.S. troops to around 2,500 in Jan., 2021. The full withdrawal of American and NATO troops was completed in August 2021; soon after, the central government collapsed and the Taliban regained control of the country. The Taliban announced the formation of an interim government in September. International aid was suspended, and widespread economic collapse and famine occurred in the country.

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