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Over 800 refugees cram onto a plane bound for Qatar
Twenty years of war, loss, and suffering in Afghanistan. But it was all for naught, as on August 31st, the two-decade long American mission ended with the Taliban, an international terrorist organization, gaining control over Afghanistan. In one sense, the United States accomplished their mission -- to establish an Afghan government. In reality, this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. So, what happened? How did America lose their longest war? How does a country fall to terrorists? And what happens to those left in the country?
One of the most important factors in the collapse of the Afghan government was the American pull-out, initiated by President Trump and completed under President Biden. The Afghan war started in 2001, in response to the horrific attack by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11th, in which planes were flown into the Pentagon and both World Trade Towers. Then President Bush ordered United States forces to invade, with the intention of defeating local terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and its powerful affiliate, the Taliban, as well as creating a functioning Afghan government and army. The 2001 invasion pushed the Taliban, which had been in power since 1996, out of control. However, as the war dragged on, it lost favor among the general public, becoming a prime topic of the subsequent Obama, Trump, and now Biden administrations.
In March 2020, with the 20-year mark approaching fast, President Trump signed a deal with the Taliban to begin pulling out American forces. A deadline of August 31st, 2021 was set for the last troops to leave, and the end of America’s longest war began, with troops beginning to leave in May 2021. Soon, the Taliban’s talks with the Afghan government collapsed, and hostilities between the two factions increased.
However, shortly after the American pull-out began in May 2021, the empowered Taliban launched a massive offensive, increasing their control of 73 districts to 223 in just three months, with local Afghan servicemen putting up little to no fight. On August 15th, the Taliban did what was thought impossible, and marched into Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. Just hours before they arrived, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country (he reappeared several days later in the United Arab Emirates with several helicopters and massive amounts of cash) and the government collapsed. The Taliban soon occupied the presidential palace, and declared victory, rebranding the country as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. With the American pull-out deadline still over two weeks away, and the Taliban in control of the airport, fear and unpredictability set in, as the world watched and waited, and the Taliban celebrated.
As the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan tightened, Afghan refugees began to flood the airport, trying desperately to board international flights, primarily American, to escape. At one point, the American military entered into a deal with the Taliban, in which the terrorists would help keep roads to the airport clear to let people arrive. As the U.S. struggled to fairly evacuate refugees, soldiers, equipment, and Afghans who had helped America (and thus were facing retribution by the Taliban), flights grew overcrowded. In one instance, 823 refugees crammed themselves into a C-17 Globemaster Plane, an aircraft designed to hold 150 people. Incredibly, the plane still managed to take off, and delivered all refugees safely to Qatar. These refugee-laden planes brought their passengers to many locations besides Qatar, including Spain, Germany, Uzbekistan, and the United States, where planes travelled to Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C., and Philadelphia’s Philadelphia International Airport. Sadly, not everyone was able to make it out on the planes. A gripping series of images showed Afghans crowding an American plane as it rolled down the tarmac. Minutes later, it took off, with three young men still holding on. One was crushed by the retracting landing gear, and the other two, one a 17-year-old boy, fell thousands of feet off the ascending plane, and were killed upon hitting the ground. Tragically, more people would be killed before the American pull-out was complete.
On August 26th, a suicide bomber joined the flow of refugees, then blew himself up a few minutes later, with a second explosion followed just minutes later. Armed gunmen swarmed the area and began firing on anyone they saw, before being killed and chased off by American forces. The attack killed 183 people, 13 of which were U.S. service members. These terrorists were not part of the Taliban, but of a different terrorist group, which goes by the name of ISIS-K. ISIS-Khorasan - named after a historical region that encompassed parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan - is an affiliate of the terrorist group ISIS, which was defeated in 2019. They claim to be the sworn rival of the Taliban and commonly target densely-packed areas, using mortars and suicide bombers. After the attacks, clashes between the Taliban and ISIS-K and the U.S. and ISIS-K began happening frequently. As part of these clashes, the U.S. began carrying out bombing operations against the group. On August 29th, American rockets destroyed a tuk-tuk carrying two senior leaders of ISIS-K, and days later, blew up a car which the US claimed was preparing to ram into the airport for a suicide attack. Later reports found no evidence of explosives in the car, rendering the attack, which pointlessly killed ten people, including seven children. General Frank McKenzie, the top general of US Central Command (the group that oversees Middle-Eastern operations) originally claimed that a secondary explosion had justified the attack, despite no evidence. He later walked back the comment, admitting on September 17th that "[t]his strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport, but it was a mistake and I offer my sincere apology," and that he is "fully responsible for this strike and this tragic outcome." This was one of the biggest mistakes made during the pull-out. Another mistake came in the form of the military technology being left behind.
As part of the mission in Afghanistan, American soldiers were provided with some of the military equipment available, including powerful bulletproof and anti-ballistic vests, elite helicopters, enormous armored vehicles called Humvees, some with powerful guns mounted on the top, and billions of dollars of equipment and aid. As the Taliban roared through Afghanistan, they seized weapons from American-armed Afghan forces, and captured American bases. Images shared by the Taliban showed them inspecting and posing with advanced American-built weapons, such as the M-16 Assault Rifle. Other images showed Taliban fighters marching around in American armor and uniforms, wearing expensive night-vision goggles, and driving and posing on massive Humvees. Several images showed fighters doing all three, wearing the clothes meant for American and Afghan soldiers. The Taliban didn’t only get equipment for the ground, as one image showed them inspecting a multi-million dollar American Black Hawk helicopter, and another showed them flying one over Kabul. Anticipating that the Taliban would seize their technology, America disabled many of the helicopters and planes, stripping them of key components and weapons systems. While the technology and weapons left behind are not cutting-edge, they are still far from obsolete, and a terrorist organization could be capable of causing a lot of damage with them. What they will do with the tech is just one of the questions surrounding Afghanistan right now.
But, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Taliban is how they will treat women. The last time the Taliban was in power, women had barely any rights. They were often forced to marry while in their teens, they were denied education, and forced to wear hijabs or burkas against their will. While the Taliban has said that they will treat women fairly, they have yet to act on that. Women have been ordered to stay at home under the threat of attacks, and advertisements showing women without a head covering were sprayed over with black spray paint when the Taliban took Kabul. There have been reports of beatings, assaults, and other atrocities against women by the Taliban, including the death of a pregnant police officer, even as the terrorists claim they are being more open minded and accepting. Yet, when they formed their new government, women were completely excluded from any position, making Afghanistan one of the few countries with no women in their government. However, the Taliban is still allowing girls to receive education - something they had previously outlawed - but in segregated schools without boys. Despite these brutal restrictions, many women from the outlying provinces have shown support for the Taliban, providing them food and shelter during their campaign and cheering when they took the government. These feelings are not shared by all women, as in Kabul, many women have bravely taken to the streets in protest, demanding they be allowed to work in positions that are not as nurses or teachers. The Taliban has cracked down on these protests, and will almost certainly remain unmoved by them, even as world leaders condemn the lack of rights being given to women. But for the Taliban, these protests are not their biggest concern right now.
The women bravely protesting in Kabul against the Taliban are not alone, as many other Afghans have taken to the streets to express their displeasure with their new illegitimate government. The Taliban has responded the same way they did to the protests by women, violently breaking them up and threatening additional violence and harm. Journalists and citizens have been brutally attacked, and sometimes whipped or beaten. For some people, protests in the streets weren’t enough. A resistance movement was formed in the mountainous northeastern province of Panjshir, making it the final province not held by the Taliban, which had been unable to seize the province during their 1996-2001 reign. The resistance group, called the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, swore that they would fight back the Taliban and reclaim the country. Sadly, they were surrounded and overwhelmed by the Taliban on September 6th, crushing most of the resistance and cementing their hold over the country.
With Afghanistan now fully under their control, the Taliban turned to one of their most important priorities: international acceptance. While many of the major world powers refuse to acknowledge or provide aid to the Taliban, a key world power has embraced them: China. The superpower, which sits north of Afghanistan, reached out to Taliban leaders to congratulate them on their victory, and pledge aid. China has promised to give almost 31 million dollars worth of food, winter-weather supplies, medicine, and vaccines to Afghanistan. There are three likely reasons for China’s enthusiasm and immediate rush to help Afghanistan. The first reason is that because the poorly-executed American pull-out left the Taliban in power, China is using the country as a jab at the United States, lowering its international standing. The second reason is that due to the territorial ambitions of the Taliban and their proximity to China, the Chinese government feared a possible future invasion and decided to establish friendships to prevent this. The third reason relates to China’s ongoing campaign against Uygur Muslims. Many Uygurs live in Afghanistan, so China could ask the Taliban to assist, by targeting or exposing Uygurs in Afghanistan for China to detain, or to kill them in exchange for Chinese aid.
In the end, several major questions remain about the future of Afghanistan. No one is sure what will happen next, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages through the country. The fate of desperate Afghans who weren’t able to make it out on American flights is unknown. As the world comes to terms with the fact that a terrorist organization overthrew a government and took control of a country, fears that terrorist organizations may use Afghanistan as a spawning ground grow, as do fears that other terrorist groups will be empowered to seize their governments. And two questions loom for the United States: did we do the right thing? And will we return to Afghanistan for another war we may not win?
Photo Credit: CNN