Exploring how the United States’ mission in Afghanistan evolved over time.
Namita Nair and Haritha Rajasekar
Podcast and Associate Editors
As the United States exits Afghanistan after more than 20 years of turmoil, the evolution of the goal set by the United States when entering the war has been a point of interest and contention for Americans. The intent behind continuing to send thousands of troops to Afghanistan shifted from finding and destroying Al Qaeda to essentially rebuilding the country as a whole to promote western democratic ideals. US involvement in Afghanistan served an impactful role in shaping politics in the US and forever altering society in Afghanistan.
The initial entry of the US was prompted by the militants of the Islamist group Al Qaeda who carried out attacks in the United States on September 11. In an effort to soothe a hurting nation and show mettle as the leader of the free world, former President George W. Bush announced that American troops would be landing in Afghanistan to launch an offensive against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The motive for deploying American troops in Afghanistan was to destroy Al Qaeda who posed an imminent threat to the United States. As George Bush stated in his presidential address days after the September 11 attack, “Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest.” This announced offensive against Al Qaeda came to be known as “Operation Enduring Freedom,” and was launched with the ambition to disrupt Al Qaeda and find those who carried out the attacks on September 11.
The mission in Afghanistan was rooted in the goal of destroying terrorism, but that was merely the foundation. So even after the primary goals of Operation Enduring Freedom were achieved, what would keep the U.S. military in the faraway country of Afghanistan?
After World War II, the United States implemented the Marshall plan to heal and reconstruct fallen Germany. Similarly, the US, after witnessing the Taliban-controlled government’s violations of citizens’ basic human rights in Afghanistan, decided to revitalize Afghanistan by incorporating western democratic ideals within the country while also securing and strengthening US presence there. Though the leaders of Al Qaeda who carried out the September 11th attacks were still being sought after and investigated, the United States government shifted its focus to construct an Afghanistan that enabled women to receive an education and enter the workforce, promoted an independent media network, and assisted in the implementation of public services. As stated by Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana in a 2003 senate hearing on the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, “If we [the United States] are able to help Afghanistan transition into a secure democracy, we will bolster our ability to attract allies in the war against terrorism.”
The primary intent morphed into something different and gave Afghans the opportunity to live a life that was not solely dictated by extremist, terrorist regimes. In a recent Q&A with Allen Weiner, a senior lecturer in International Law at Stanford University, he responds to a question regarding the successes of the 20-year involvement in Afghanistan stating, “Afghanistan did make significant progress in terms of economic development and the realization of at least some civil and political rights. Per capita GDP rose dramatically in the decades after the U.S. invasion. The status of women and girls improved along many dimensions, including health, life expectancy, education levels, and participation in government institutions.”
However, the situation in Afghanistan continued to be a divisive and politically charged issue in the American political scene. Three presidents, finding the continual stationing of US troops in Afghanistan expensive and facing criticism from the public on the lack of a clear purpose in Afghanistan, attempted to remove the US from Afghanistan as a whole. Former President Donald Trump was yet another president intending to remove these troops and end the war and end continual federal spending; to do so, in February of 2020, he negotiated a deal with the Afghan terrorist group, the Taliban, who, prior to the US’ entrance in Afghanistan, served and exerted control as the governing body. In this negotiation, the US agreed to remove US troops from Afghanistan. This deal was agreed upon without consultation or involvement of the Afghan government but was eventually carried out by President Joe Biden when he made the executive decision to remove the US troops in June 2021, stating that the initial mission to destroy Al Qaeda was completed. As he stated in a recent address, “remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place? Because we were attacked by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001, and they were based in Afghanistan. We delivered justice to Bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Over a decade ago. Al Qaeda was decimated.”
While the initial message was very clear-cut and specific, it was broadened overtime to justify staying in Afghanistan. From destroying Al Qaeda to reconstructing Afghanistan as a whole, the United States has made an integral impact on the lives of Afghan citizens, enabling them to experience the democratic world. But now, Afghanistan is once again in the hands of the Taliban. Was the United States’ mission achieved? Has the evolution of the goal worsened the current state of Afghanistan? Regardless of the answer, it is clear that US involvement in Afghanistan and the reestablishment of Taliban power has left Afghans with an uncertain and tumultuous future.
Resources to learn more and help out the Afghanistan community:
Afghan Coalition: afghancoalition.com
South Asians for America: saforamerica.org