In October of 2001, the U.S. led a coalition invasion of Afghanistan seeking to oust the ruling Taliban and find Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Join Active Minds for a look at the story of Afghanistan, both before and since 9/11. We will also take a look forward at what the future holds for this war-torn country.

Key Lecture Points

  • Afghanistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East has given it a pivotal role in the region’s history, but its terrain and people have thwarted would-be conquerors for centuries.
  • After 9/11, President Bush gave Afghanistan an ultimatum to hand over Osama Bin Laden.  When the Taliban refused, the US joined forces with the Northern Alliance and other rebel groups that never accepted Taliban rule.  By the end of the year, the Taliban were driven out of major cities. The remnants of the Taliban retreated to the Pakistan border from which it regained its military and political footing in the rugged northwest of Pakistan and subsequently in Afghanistan, continuing its insurgency against the Afghan government.
  • In 2009, President Obama announced a “surge” of an additional 30,000 troops that would be sent to Afghanistan.  At the same time, he set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops starting in 2011 to be completed in 2014. All combat troops were withdrawn in 2014 but some US forces remain as advisers. The ever-resilient Taliban forces have demonstrated their ability to retreat and respond.  Making matters more challenging is the recent emergence of Islamic State affiliated forces in Afghanistan as well.
  • The 2014 Afghan elections were inconclusive, even after a second round of voting.  The US mediated a power sharing agreement between the two major candidates which continues to paralyze the government and fails to address the reemergence of the Taliban. Presidential elections in 2019 resulted in a victory for Ashraf Ghani amid uncertainty and instability.
  • As Biden begins his presidency, the war with the Taliban has made little tangible progress, and the United States has announced it will withdraw its soldiers by September 2021. Afghan defense forces are demoralized and stretched thin and the government of President Ghani is beset by divisions and administrative paralysis.  Although the Trump administration is expected to continue to support the war with funds and troops, the conflict cannot be resolved until the Afghan government addresses the country’s pervasive corruption, overcomes ethnic rivalries, conducts the delayed elections, brings the Taliban into domestic politics and improves its relations with Pakistan.

Exploration Questions

  • Who do you think was more destructive for Afghanistan as a whole, the occupation by the Soviets or the Taliban? Explain.
  • In what way did the U.S. unwittingly strengthen the Taliban and Osama bin Laden by training and supporting insurgents during the Soviet occupation? What should the US do now to reduce the power of anti-western forces in the region?
  • What are the major issues facing Afghanistan today?

Reflective Questions

  • When you think of Afghanistan, what do you picture? Is it people or places or things?
  • What do you think the U.S. should do to insure the future of Afghanistan?
  • What do you think of President Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops? 

More to Explore

For Further Reading

  • Shaffer, Anthony. Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontiers of Afghanistan—and the Path to Victory. St Martin’s Griffin, 2011. 320 pages. The author, who led a black-ops team in Afghanistan, describes how bureaucracy stands in the way of national security. This is the book the Defense Department bought the entire first printing of to avoid its distribution.
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  • Mansfield, David.  A State Built on Sand: How Opium Undermined Afghanistan.  Oxford University Press, USA,  2016.  This book examines attempts by international donors to curtain the cultivation of the opium poppy.  The author discusses how prohibition has served divergent and competing interests and how production bans undermine livelihoods, destabilize the political order, fueling violence and rural rebellion.
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  • Hosseini, Khaled.  The Kite Runner.  Riverhead Books, 2013. 371 pages.  This well-known Afghan writer tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant.  It is a story of friendship, betrayal, redemption and the power of fathers over sons.
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  • Crile, George.  Charlie Wilson’s War:  The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Change The History.  Grove Press, 2004. 560 pages.  The true story of how a wealthy Houston socialite turned the attention of a maverick Texas Congressman to the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet invaders, launching a covert CIA operation.
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