Recent turmoil in Afghanistan has propelled it back into the headlines. However, the country has suffered a long and chequered history of conflict. Back in 1881, British troops withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of the Second Afghan War. This juxtaposes sharply with the recent American withdrawal mainly because the British had achieved most of its goals in 1881. While the British left behind a peaceful and stable government, America is less fortuitous in leaving behind an Islamist military organisation in charge. Many wonder how their 20-year occupation came to such a dramatic end; a military occupation intended to oust the Taliban and deny extremists a haven. The occupancy has cost around $3 trillion in reconstruction and military costs over the last two decades. This collapse of American and British occupancy, seeing them flee Afghanistan, hands the power over to the Taliban and associated extremists. Thus, it’s opportune to reflect on the timeline of conflict in Afghanistan.
Following the early twentieth century, a period of relative peace flowed when Zahir Shah became king in 1933; this was after independence from British influence was declared. Twenty years later, in 1953, General Mohammed Duad became Prime Minister.
Duad requested Soviet assistance in military and fiscal projects. In addition, he began to introduce Islamic reforms such as female seclusion from public view. However, he was forced to step down in 1963, and a constitutional monarchy was introduced in Afghanistan. This led to a split in the government and an ensuing power struggle. Finally, in 1973, Duad declared Afghanistan a republic after a coup and was killed five years later in a pro-Soviet takeover. After that, the People’s Democratic Party faced governance problems as guerrilla (mujahideen) groups opposed their control before Soviet intervention in 1979.
The Soviet Union’s military invasion witnessed Babrak Karmal being placed at the helm of government. The US-backed guerrilla mujahideen opposed Soviet forces, and war once again ensued, killing over a million Afghanis and 15,000 Soviet troops. The US provided arms over the subsequent years in the conflict, helping the guerrillas oppose Soviet occupation. Eventually, the Geneva Peace Accords were signed by the US, the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; and the Soviet Union withdraw the last of their troops in 1989. More conflict lay ahead.
The Nineties witnessed a strengthening of the Taliban following an Afghani civil war. The Soviet Union fell in 1991, and so did President Najibullah’s pro-communist government. Conflicting mujahideen leaders arrived in Kabul while citizens fled to Pakistan and Iran, with some 50,000 killed in the subsequent Mujahideen war. In 1994, the Taliban arrived on the scene. The Taliban were, and remain, highly conservative Afghan student-fighters who originate from religious seminaries and mujahideen groups. They took over the Afghan city of Kandahar, imposing their strict interpretation of Islam. Soon after that, in 1996, Osama bin Laden the al-Qaida leader, arrived in Afghanistan after being expelled from Sudan. He quickly befriended the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. This friendship shaped the next quarter-century.
The next three years witnessed the Taliban seize control of Kabul, hanging former President Najibullah from a lamppost. As their rule of Afghanistan grew, so did their harsh regime. Famous for public executions, stoning, beatings, and amputations, they also forbid most women from working, banned girls from education, banned sports and music. During their reign, they also denied UN food supplies to starving civilians and burnt vast areas of fertile land, destroying tens of thousands of homes in the process. In 1998, the city of Khost was targeted by US cruise missiles in retaliation for Bin Laden’s (al-Qaida) attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. This marked the start of a conflict that would define history as the UN Security Council designated the Taliban and al-Qaida as terrorist organisations.
In the weeks before the 9/11 terror attacks, the Taliban tried and killed foreign aid workers for ‘preaching Christianity’ in Afghanistan, including Americans. Bin Laden’s terror attack on US soil led to a coalition of forces invading Afghanistan targeting the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Taliban fled Kabul in late 2001, and the Bonn Agreement on an interim government was signed in the power vacuum. Warlords, military commanders, cabinet ministers, and members of the Northern Alliance were named provincial governors, and a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force was established under a UN mandate. After that, however, conflict flared again. The Taliban mounted a resurgence in mid-2003, training recruits for guerrilla warfare to expel US forces from Afghanistan. After a period of relative calm where the Taliban trained recruits in remote territories and traded insults with America, in 2006, they escalated attacks. They retook territory in rural areas of the south.
Afterwards, US President Obama came into power, and his administration ordered a dramatic increase of troops in Afghanistan in 2009, with a mandate to leave by 2011. This exit never transpired, and the conflict continued well into 2012 when NATO announced it would withdraw foreign combat troops and transfer control of security operations to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. This represented more delay by the occupying forces.
However, when the Afghan army took over security operations from NATO and Obama’s administration brokered peace talks with the Taliban, a feeling of optimism followed. Then, in late 2014, American and NATO troops formally ended their combat missions, transitioning to a training and support occupancy. Around the same time, President Obama authorised US soldiers to carry out coordinated operations against al-Qaida and Taliban targets. This act of aggression resulted in the Taliban retaliating; thereby, aiming daily attacks on Afghan and US forces and seizing half of Afghanistan. Around this time, an Islamic State group affiliate emerged in the east.
After his election, President Donald Trump began negotiations with the Taliban. Talks between both sides continued throughout 2019, with the Taliban refusing to negotiate with the Kabul government and instead escalated their attacks. During this period, the new Islamic State group carried out a suicide bombing at a wedding in the Hazara neighbourhood of Kabul, further provoking tensions. Fortunately, in 2020, the US and the Taliban signed a deal in Doha that set out a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops; quid pro quo, the Taliban promised to halt attacks on US troops. However, Taliban-Afghan government negotiations stalled with no consensus. The conflict was not yet over.
In March of this year, further attempts between the rival Afghan sides failed to find a resolution. No talks have taken place since. On April 14 this year, President Biden said the remaining troops in Afghanistan would be withdrawn by September 11 to mark 20 years of occupancy. Smelling an opportunity, the Taliban accelerated their takeover of territories. In the north, several areas fell to their soldiers. Then, in July, the US handed over Bagram Airfield to Afghan military control. Many regard this transfer of Bagram as symbolic. For 20 years, it represented the US military’s presence in Afghanistan. Thus, it signalled the long-awaited exit of American troops.