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Afghanistan: A graveyard of empires

In defence of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in his press conference, President Joe Biden said:

“The events we’re seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, and secure Afghanistan — as known in history as the “graveyard of empires.”

Afghanistan is a country where multiple foreign powers have endured failed attempts in establishing permanent rule in modern Afghanistan.

The rise of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan

On July 17, 1973, Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan, former Prime Minister of Afghanistan, led a non-violent coup, overthrowing the monarchy. He declared Afghanistan a republic, declaring himself as its first President and Prime Minister. Despite several attempts to introduce desperately needed economic and social reforms, political instability very much remained.

In 1978, Mir Akbar Khyber, a prominent member of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was killed by the government, prompting the PDPA, led by Nur Mohammad Taraki, Babrak Karmal and Amin Taha to overthrow the government of Mohammad Daoud on 28 April 1978. Daoud Khan was assassinated along with all his family members. The coup, which became known as the Saur Revolution, led to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, lasting until April 1992.

The PDPA embarked on a series of reforms. It replaced religious and traditional laws with secular and communist ones. New laws obliged males to cut their beards, whilst women were banned from wearing a Chadah, and mosques could not be attended to. Forced marriages were banned and women were granted the right to vote, together with the promotion of state atheism. However, the PDPA imprisoned, tortured, and murdered thousands of members of the elite class as well as the religious establishment.

A 2-afghani Afghan stamp from 1979 honoring the Central Organ of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), featuring President Nur Mohammad Taraki.

The PDPA ensured good relations with the Soviet Union, inviting them to help in the development of Afghanistan’s infrastructure, facilitating the construction of roads, hospitals, and schools, as well as training the Afghan military. In December 1978, Afghanistan signed an agreement with the Soviet Union that would allow military support for the PDPA in Afghanistan when required.

The Afghan government’s reliance on the Soviet Union made it unpopular with many Afghans, resulting in unrest, especially in rural areas. The PDPA’s policies clashed directly with the traditional Afghan understanding of Islam, causing Islam to unify the tribally and ethnically divided population against the PDPA. As a result, the USSR invaded on December 27, 1979, with over 100,000 Soviet troops taking part in this operation.

In response to the Soviet invasion, the U.S.A began arming the Afghan rebels, known as mujahideen, providing as much as up to $40 billion in cash and weapons, together with Saudi Arabia. The mujahideen, which translates to “defenders of the faith” consisted of Islamic groups from all over Afghanistan. Also, the US government provided schoolbooks promoting militant Islamic teachings, including war-like images to indoctrinate Afghan children against the Soviets.

As a result of the war with the Soviets, about 6 million Afghani fled to Pakistan and Iran. Faced with enormous international pressure as well as casualties, the Soviets withdrew in 1989, to the delight of the United States, which had backed some Mujahideen factions through three U.S. presidential administrations.

The Taliban emergence

The year 1994 saw the emergence of the Taliban (Afghani for students), a movement of religious students from the Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan who were educated in traditional Islamic schools of Pakistan.

Despite ensuing on a path to bomb Kabul in early 1995, it was not until 27th September 1996 that the Taliban seized Kabul, with military support by Pakistan and financial support by Saudi Arabia. On the same day, the Taliban established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, imposing the political and judicial interpretation of Islam, known as Sharia law. This included severely restricting women's rights, such as forbidding them from going to work, attending school or leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative.

Al Qaeda and 9/11

The Taliban is well known for signing deals and breaking them. Bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda developed a cosy relationship with the Taliban who both have a common enemy, the United States. Bin Laden wanted to take revenge on the United States and conquer the world, and the Taliban welcomed him and hosted him with all his network.

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Al Qaeda carried out four terrorist attacks in US territory, famously known as the 9/11 attacks. The attacks killed 2,977 people from 93 nations: 2,753 people were killed in New York; 184 people were killed at the Pentagon; and 40 people were killed on Flight 93.

As a result of these attacks, for which Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, the US president at the time George W. Bush demanded the following from the Taliban:

1. The transfer of all Al Qaeda leaders into US custody.

2. Release all imprisoned foreign nationals in Afghanistan

3. The immediate closure of every terrorist training camp

4. Hand over every terrorist and their supporters to the appropriate authorities

5. Grant the US access to terrorist training camps for inspection

The Taliban refused to meet these demands, stating that they had no evidence linking Bin Laden to 9/11. As a result, Operation Enduring Freedom was launched on 7th October 2001. The operation, which was led by the USA together with its allies, aimed to destroy terrorist training camps and infrastructure in Afghanistan. It also aimed to capture al-Qaeda leaders, as well as stopping terrorist activities in Afghanistan.

Although America enjoyed notable success during the early days of the war, it became increasingly clear that it would be harder than expected to root out Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, who by then had escaped to Pakistan. For this reason, the American government started to alter its original plans, this time round focusing on their “Nation Building” policy, which was intended to strengthen the new Afghani state after the Taliban were deposed.

Central to the “Nation Building” policy was the construction of a ring road connecting Afghanistan’s 4 major cities; a project that cost billions but ended up never being completed. America’s invasion of Iraq meanwhile, resulted in Afghanistan becoming less of a priority, with funding and human resources being diverted to the latter. This lack of focus led to a Talibani resurgence, with the group being able to take over various rural areas.

The ring road connecting Afghanistan’s 4 major cities

Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden was laterkilled in Abottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, by a United States military special operations unit during an operation, code-named Operation Neptune Spear.

Subsequently, Operation Enduring Freedom was ended on 28th December 2014 by President Obama, more than 13 years after the first airstrike was launched. This was succeeded by Operation Freedom's Sentinel, which aimed to work with allies as part of Resolute support.

Withdrawal of troops and the subsequent rise of the Taliban.

On 29 February 2020, the US, represented by President Donald J. Trump, agreed with the Taliban to withdraw all regular American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, in exchange for preventing al-Qaeda from operating in areas under Taliban control. The original plan was to subsequently withdraw all troops by 1st May 2021. However, the Biden administration extended this deadline until the 31st of August 2021. Although sensitive US Government reports claimed that the Afghan Government would collapse within 6 months after the US and NATO complete the withdrawal of their troops, they were caught by surprise as Kabul was re-captured by Taliban forces on 15th August 2021. Just a few weeks earlier, President Biden had dismissed claims of potential Afghan collapse, stating instead that Afghanistan was expected to hold out against a new and reinforced Talibani push.

As a result of the Government’s collapse, President Ashraf Ghani resigned from his position and fled the country to avoid bloodshed in Kabul, allowing for the Taliban to approach the Presidential palace in a peaceful manner. This was followed by the declaration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

On the 17th of August 2021, the Taliban militants gave their first press conference to the world, promising to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought against them whilst ensuring Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists. They claimed that the new Afghanistan will function within the framework of Sharia law and political Islam.

More than 800,000 US military members served in Afghanistan during America's longest war. Over 2,000 were killed and more than 20,000 were injured. Will the world experience a new and wiser Taliban, or have we turned back time once again?

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