After the Longest War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
As America plots an Afghanistan exit, this series looks at who gains and what that means.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
After two decades in Afghanistan, the Biden administration has announced that the U.S. will withdraw all troops on Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks that sparked America’s longest war. This series was originally published in Sept. 2019.
The U.S. and the Taliban signed a historic agreement on Saturday that could pave the way for President Donald Trump to withdraw most American troops from Afghanistan and fulfill a campaign promise ahead of the 2020 elections. By inking the deal before representatives of more than a dozen governments in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban is committing to peace talks with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani.
While the specifics of the agreement are unclear at the moment, it’s a pivotal step in an intense chess game that the Taliban and the U.S. have played for the past few years. They’ve each tried to out-negotiate the other, even as both want the same goal: an early end to America’s longest-ever war. It’s a war that has dragged on for 18 years, claiming the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers even as the Taliban and other militant groups have ground the world’s most powerful military to a stalemate.
That wasn’t what the U.S. had expected when it invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 for a quick war aimed at removing the Taliban from power and capturing Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Yet while the Taliban were deposed from Kabul, it took the U.S. a decade to capture and kill bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan. In many ways, Afghanistan has lived up to its reputation as a graveyard of empires: Before the Americans, the Soviets and the British had also failed to truly dominate the nation. And the Taliban today still control vast territories in Afghanistan, which is why the U.S. recognizes that a peace deal with the group is America’s only route to an exit from the country.
But what will the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan mean for both countries, and for myriad nations — from Russia and China to India and Pakistan — with deep stakes in the region? Will the Taliban return to power, and which new faces will you see more of in the coming months and years? Which countries can actually guarantee peace and stability in Afghanistan? Did America’s involvement in Afghanistan really begin with 9/11 and terrorism, or was the U.S. already entrenched there? Will the withdrawal of the U.S. truly mean an end to the war and conflict in Afghanistan? And how will America enforce the conditions the Taliban commits to under their peace deal?
This new OZY series gets you answers to those questions, and gets you ahead of the curve on what to expect next.
As frenzied negotiations on the future of Afghanistan edge towards a climax, the country that is best placed to play guarantor of any stability in the war-torn nation is one that had little role in the conflict in the 1990s: China. As a major investor in Afghanistan, it wants peace. It is also the biggest economic and military backer of Pakistan — which in turn holds the reins to the Taliban. And it has strong ties with both the elected Afghan government and the Taliban directly. (Unlike the U.S., which has frayed relations with both the elected government and Pakistan.) How China plays its cards could determine America’s legacy in Afghanistan — never mind the trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
He was Afghanistan’s deputy education minister when the Taliban ruled the country in the 1990s — denying women the right to study and ensuring that only those books that subscribed to the group’s philosophy were available. If the Taliban returns to power after the U.S. withdrawal, expect Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi to take on a far bigger role in the new dispensation. Now the Taliban’s deputy political head, he has been a central part of the group’s negotiations with the U.S., Russia, China and others, jet-setting to Moscow, Beijing and Doha. And analysts say that this time around, the well-educated mullah could actually prove to be a moderate, favorable to Afghanistan’s women.
Under the peace agreement the U.S. has finalized “in principle” with the Taliban, America will withdraw 5,400 troops from five bases in Afghanistan within 20 weeks. Meanwhile, the Taliban has committed to eschewing support for terrorist and militant groups like the al-Qaida and the Haqqani network, and to respecting the rights of women and minorities under the Afghan constitution. But the Taliban isn’t exactly known for keeping its word: in the past, the group has relied on violent attacks to gain leverage. Former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin writes for OZY on what America must do to hold the Taliban to the pact.
Sugarland, Texas, couldn’t be farther apart in every way from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Yet in 1995, a plane with a dozen Taliban leaders landed in the majority-White town. A brutal civil war was on in Afghanistan, and the ultraconservative Taliban were clearly emerging as the group that would grab control of the nation. For the executives of oil giant Unocal, that meant opportunity. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the firm had scouted and discovered oil and gas in the landlocked Central Asian republics north of Afghanistan. But to get that oil and gas out, they needed a pipeline through Afghanistan to the Gulf of Oman. Unocal executives simultaneously lobbied the Clinton administration and the Taliban’s negotiators — who were hosted at the Sugarland residence of Unocal Vice President Marty Miller.
When CIA officers Johnny “Mike” Spann and Dave “Dawson” Tyson arrived at the Qala-i-Janghi fort on Nov. 25, 2001, their task was to interrogate Taliban members captured by American forces and their Northern Alliance partners following the invasion of Afghanistan. But the Taliban fighters had other ideas. They had planned and waited for that moment. Two hours into the interrogation, they unleashed grenades they had saved on their interrogators, launching what turned into one of the bloodiest — and most pivotal — close-range battles of the two-decade-long Afghan war. It was a fight that also revealed an unlikely Taliban fighter: American John Walker Lindh, who only recently was set free after two decades in prison.
Is he in Sindh, Pakistan? Or in Bryan, Ohio? Neither, insists Zabiullah Mujahid — never mind Twitter geolocators that have placed him in both places. But those doubts about his whereabouts suit him well. Mujahid, who is in his 40s, is the spokesperson for the Taliban at a time when it is emerging as more powerful than ever, and staking a claim once more to lead the country. In keeping with today’s age, Mujahid is prolific on Twitter — announcing assassinations, denouncing American “invaders and their hirelings” and at the same time sharing updates of negotiations with the U.S. Expect to hear more from — and of — him.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, OZY Author Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi