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Understanding Afghanistan’s Disappointing Outcome (Part II)

By Dr. Kelly C. Jordan
Faculty Member, Military Studies and National Security Studies

Note: This article is the second article in a four-part series about Afghanistan. This article will provide an overview of U.S. political and strategic aims, as well as major military actions, in Afghanistan during 2001-2021.

The “Bush Doctrine,” created in 2001, was based upon the belief that the global network of international terrorism – comprised of terrorists and their state and non-state sponsors – had become an existential threat to the American way of life. The U.S. held the view that this network needed to be eradicated, and that viewpoint became the foundation of early post-9/11 policy and strategy.

The United States considered that terrorists and the nation-states that harbored, supported, and abetted their activities constituted threats to American national security. In practice, these threats required the U.S. to destroy the terrorists and their sources of support.

The Bush Doctrine was applied immediately after 9/11 as a two-part ultimatum: states and/or non-state entities either supported the U.S. and became allies, or they became an enemy of America. In the area of Afghanistan, Pakistan chose to support the U.S., while the Taliban refused.

US Political and Strategic Aims in Afghanistan, 2001-2002

The initial political goal of the U.S. was to stabilize Afghanistan by transforming its government into one that refused to harbor terrorists and terrorist groups. Based upon the response to the U.S. Bush Doctrine ultimatum, this goal meant replacing the existing Taliban government with a government more supportive of this U.S. objective.

At this time, the goals of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan were:

U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan – Operation Enduring Freedom – consequently began in early October 2001. The U.S. collaborated with the anti-Taliban Afghan Northern Alliance. With the addition of forces from the U.K., the Taliban was eliminated, and its leaders fled Afghanistan by early 2002.

Afterward, the U.S. concentrated its forces in eastern Afghanistan in order to fight al-Qaeda and other terrorists that operated on either side of Pakistan’s border. At the same time, military units searched for Osama bin Laden, whose capture or death would complete the destruction of al-Qaeda. In coordinating efforts, other allied forces operated across Afghanistan.

US Political and Strategic Aims in Afghanistan, 2003-2008

During 2003-2009, the U.S. political objective of eradicating global terrorism evolved into developing and supporting a moderate, representative, and democratic Afghan government capable of controlling its territory effectively. This new Afghani government would also be supportive of the U.S. global war against terrorism, which was nation-building in practice if not in name.

U.S. military objectives during this era included:

  • Defending the central Afghan government by defeating Taliban, al-Qaeda and affiliated forces
  • Stabilizing the situation in the south and east of Afghanistan
  • Building the strength of Afghan security forces
  • Searching for Osama bin Laden

While the U.S. helped establish a new Afghan national government and began creating a national Afghan army and police force, the Taliban rebuilt itself in the haven of Pakistan. Progress during this period was insufficient to prevent the Taliban from reemerging in Afghanistan, beginning in 2005.

The Taliban initiated a resurgence of violence that disrupted the creation of a peaceful environment to build institutions. U.S. commanders resolutely battled the Taliban. But by the fall of 2006, the intensity of the fighting, coupled with the slow progress in developing an effective Afghan army and the Taliban’s increasing momentum, convinced the U.S. that it needed to deploy additional forces in Afghanistan to achieve its strategic objectives.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) agreed to the U.S. request for assistance on December 8, 2005, establishing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). NATO sent approximately 8,000 British, Canadian, Dutch, Australian and Romanian forces to southern Afghanistan, allowing the U.S. to concentrate its over 20,000 forces in the east. The U.S. assumed command of ISAF in 2007.

US Political and Strategic Aims in Afghanistan, 2009-2014

Based upon developments in Afghanistan, U.S. political objectives then evolved to focus on preventing the Taliban from overthrowing the new Afghan government. At the same time, the U.S. continued to build the Afghan government’s capacity for self-rule, which would create favorable conditions for the U.S. to transfer responsibility back to Afghani leaders and bring the war to a close.

With the realization that the U.S. did not have to defeat the Taliban to achieve these objectives, this change shifted the focus of efforts from nation-building to capacity building. Time considerations then became the main influence on U.S. policy and strategic decision-making.

U.S. strategy focused on disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These efforts included:

  • Preventing al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan or Pakistan by providing increased aid to Pakistan
  • Measuring progress in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban more explicitly
  • Deploying an additional 4,000 soldiers to help train the Afghan army and police force
  • Calling upon NATO nations to supply non-military assets to Afghanistan

Overall, the intent was to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny Taliban access to key population centers. The U.S. also wanted to continue building up Afghan security forces while simultaneously destroying any insurgency, which would allow Afghan forces to assume the primary responsibility for Afghanistan’s national security.

In terms of military operations, the U.S. implemented a deliberate counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan in mid-2009. Military forces conducted a major escalation (the “surge”) with the commitment of additional troops to improve the competency of Afghan security forces and get more Afghans into the fight.

The surge was a tactical success but a strategic failure. However, Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011, completing the primary U.S. goal of eliminating al-Qaeda as a threat to America.

In March 2011, the U.S. announced that it was ready to consider peace negotiations. By mid-2013, Afghan forces took over responsibility for nationwide security from NATO forces. The focus of U.S. efforts shifted to offering military training and special operations support for counterterrorism activities.

This transition, combined with dwindling domestic support for what appeared to have become an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan, led the U.S. to announce an end to Operation Enduring Freedom on December 31, 2014.

US Political and Strategic Aims in Afghanistan, 2015-2017

On January 1, 2015, NATO took over responsibility for military operations in Afghanistan, initiating Operation Resolute Support. This multinational mission shifted the focus away from conducting major military operations to a support role of providing training and assistance to the Afghan forces.

As part of this effort, the U.S. began Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. This operation was a separate, non-NATO U.S. effort to provide protection for Afghanistan through logistical, air, and intelligence support. U.S. forces also conducted counterterrorism operations against of al-Qaeda remnants to ensure Afghanistan would never again be used to stage terrorist attacks against the U.S.

The Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) was, unfortunately, still not capable of independently holding Afghanistan’s territory against the Taliban. The two primary reasons were the ASNF’s lack of combat effectiveness and its size (it wasn’t large enough to take on the entire task). This lack of capability shifted the timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces to the end of 2016. 

During 2016, the U.S. strategic resources commitment began coming into question. As a result, and U.S. strategic attention shifted to concerns regarding the impact and influence of the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Beginning in 2017, U.S. strategic goals became even more pragmatic. These goals involved attacking U.S. enemies, obliterating ISIS and crushing al-Qaeda. Other objectives included preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terrorist attacks against America before they emerged.

Consequently, the U.S. returned to more conditions-based considerations. This new strategy prioritized peace talks with a goal of leading to a yet-to-be-defined political settlement. It was accepted by both the U.S. military and diplomats, but its implementation was slow. An entire year would pass before it was enacted in any meaningful way.

A new terrorist group then emerged – the extremist Islamic State – that radicalized the Taliban. U.S. military operations damaged the Islamic State, probably prevented an attack on the U.S., and were effective in reducing the number and impact of Taliban attacks.

Nevertheless, the Islamic State gained operational momentum during the 2017 fighting season. It shifted from clandestine preparations to open terrorism in 2018, taking its operations to an unprecedented level of intensity.

US Political and Strategic Aims in Afghanistan, 2018-2021

During early 2018, U.S. and NATO operations achieved a stalemate in Afghanistan, setting the conditions for meaningful peace talks. U.S. military strategy was adjusted to supporting peace negotiations, shifting military assets from killing Taliban leadership to defending posts, streamlining communications, and selectively employing Special Operations Forces.

By 2019, U.S. policy aimed to protect the integrity of the Afghan state. The U.S. attempted to end hostilities with the Taliban on acceptable terms, using ways that mitigated the threats of terrorism, instability and conflict in the region.

By February 29, 2020, a somewhat conditions-based agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban supporting these objectives had been reached. However, the U.S. determined by November 2020 that even these revised strategic objectives were not feasible and announced its plan to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces in 2021.

On April 14, 2021, based upon an assessment that terrorism was no longer a major threat from Afghanistan (and thus justifying the discarding of any conditions-based considerations), the U.S. returned to time-based considerations. The Biden Administration announced that U.S. military forces would begin their final withdrawal before May 1 and complete it by September 11, 2021.

On July 8, 2021, the U.S. announced that the war in Afghanistan would officially conclude on August 31, 2021. During August 2021, the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan

Part III of this series will discuss the reasons for the outcome.

Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and he is currently a full-time associate professor of military studies and national security studies. Dr. Jordan received his B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, graduating with academic distinction and as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He holds a M.A. and a Ph.D. in military history from The Ohio State University and is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. As an academic, Dr. Jordan is an award-winning professor who has served on the faculties of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Naval War College, and the University of Notre Dame. As a scholar, he is the author of numerous military history and leadership studies publications.

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