9/11, and the circumstances it gave rise to, left deep wounds in the lives of millions of people and consequently made an indelible mark in history. As the fiery rubble of the Twin Towers came crashing down and a sudden emptiness replaced the 2,977 lives lost, the cracking sound of crumbling concrete seemed to reverberate throughout the Western world. Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, was identified as responsible. The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan at the time and sheltered al-Qaeda militants, refused to hand bin Laden to the US authorities. This familiar sequence of events led the US to initiate air strikes against Afghanistan on the 7th of October 2001. 

Mission accomplished?

The invasion was led by US forces with the support of America’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and framed as a step in the war on terror. According to US President George W. Bush, the aim of the mission was, “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.”

Twenty years down the line, as US forces withdraw from the country, the mission and its achievements on the ground seem far less clear-cut. 

Addressing a joint session of Congress a fortnight after the withdrawal announcement, President Joe Biden claimed that America has completed its mission, “We went to Afghanistan to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. We delivered justice to Osama Bin Laden, and we degraded the terrorist threat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

Others view US involvement in Afghanistan as a resounding failure. When asked about the challenges the country now faces, former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai responded, “The entire mission with regard to the stated objective of the United States and its NATO allies, in defeating terrorism and extremism, has failed.”

Such an assessment is corroborated by a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report released in June. The report indicates that the aims articulated by Bush before the invasion are far from being achieved.

For one, the US withdrawal is occurring amidst a rapid Taliban resurgence. The UNSC report considers an emboldened Taliban to pose a severe threat to the security situation in Afghanistan, which “remains as tense and challenging as at any time in recent history.” 

Nor has the potential of the country to host armed groups such as al-Qaeda been eroded. The UNSC report notes that Afghanistan remains host to a number of terrorist groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State, of which the former two “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.”

Prospects for the Afghan Government

Whether the US mission has attained its stated objectives to date or not, whatever has been achieved risks being erased if the situation continues to deteriorate at its current rate. In light of this month’s shockingly rapid Taliban advance, a new US intelligence assessment suggests that the Western-backed government could fall to the Taliban within six months of US forces withdrawing. President Biden himself admitted it is “highly unlikely” the Afghan government will be able to control the entire country. 

Since Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April, around 95% of US troops have left Afghanistan. Meanwhile, district after district has fallen under Taliban control. According to an ongoing assessment by the Long War Journal, the Taliban controlled over half of Afghanistan’s 407 districts as of mid-July 2021, with 110 remaining contested and only 78 under government control. In many cases, Afghan security forces have surrendered districts without a shot being fired. Instead, over 1,000 members of said forces fled across the Afghan-Tajik border as the Taliban gained ground.  The Taliban have reportedly seized new weapons from the Afghan military, including 900 guns, 30 light tactical vehicles and 20 army pickup trucks. In an attempt to curb the violence unleashed by the sweeping Taliban offensive and limit the insurgents’ movements, the Afghan government has now imposed a night-time curfew in 31 of the country’s 34 provinces. 

Though the Taliban have overrun much of the countryside, they control no major towns or cities. Nonetheless, the Taliban are able to exert significant pressure on urban centres through their occupation of rural areas and by capturing strategic border crossings in recent weeks, including ones with Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan. Perhaps the most significant was the taking of Spin Boldak. This has given the Taliban direct access to Pakistan’s Balochistan province, where the group’s top leadership has been based for decades and deprived the government in Kabul of an important source of revenues. 

On paper, the Afghan security forces would seem to have an advantage over their opponents. It is estimated that the Taliban are between 58,000 and 100,000 fighters strong, in contrast with 308,000 government troops, who are also better equipped. 

In reality, the Afghan army and police often yield to significantly smaller forces; the Taliban hold a decisive psychological advantage. Plummeting morale is unsurprising given recent Taliban gains on the ground. The momentum the Taliban have gained is exacerbated by the American withdrawal, which has curtailed air support on which the Afghan security forces have come to rely

But the cracks that are showing precede the withdrawal. As well as being demoralised, the Afghan security forces are rife with corruption. Although the US and its NATO allies have spent billions of dollars trying to equip government forces to stand alone against the Taliban, troops complain about substandard equipment, being abandoned by their commanders, and going without pay, food, or ammunition. 

Afghan security forces are also far from self-sufficient. According to a report from 30th April by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. oversight body for reconstruction in Afghanistan, the Afghan security forces continue to face “critical capability gaps,” such as aircraft maintenance, that require sustained international support. 

Desperate to plug these gaps, the Afghan government is urging warlords and regional power brokers to mobilise militias. In so doing, the government is raising a spectre feared by the Afghan population, the country’s neighbours, and the wider international community alike. The gathering and arming of disparate militias risks a collapse into anarchy reminiscent of the civil war that tore through the country in the 1990s. 

Moves towards peace

Aware of these possible consequences, the most senior American general in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, urged caution as militias are deployed to support the struggling security forces: “A civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now, that should be of concern to the world.”

Afghanistan’s neighbours are stepping up efforts to prevent a civil war and secure stability, leading to a conference in Uzbekistan on 16th July. Over a dozen leaders and foreign ministers from regional powers—including Pakistan, Russia, China, India, Turkey, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—met with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and senior American diplomats such as the top US envoy for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad. 

The conference presented “an opportunity to work out concrete solutions to assist the Afghan parties to reach mutual understanding and ensure the sustainability of peace in Afghanistan,” according to Said Rustamov, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the UK.

As the US-brokered peace process based in Doha stalls and violence on the ground escalates, the ongoing search for a peace settlement has motivated efforts to keep both sides at the negotiating table. At the beginning of July, Iran hosted the first substantive talks in months between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives. 

The Afghan government, Taliban, and US authorities have all recognised the need for a political—not military—solution to secure peace in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the more hopeful scenario of a palatable political compromise seems unlikely in the current climate.  

The recent intensification of the conflict suggests that the Taliban are hoping to use their gains on the ground to achieve a more dominant negotiating position. Alternatively, it could show that they have no genuine interest in negotiation and intend to topple the government by force.

The UNSC report mentioned earlier suggests that the strategy employed by the Taliban is an amalgamation of these alternatives: negotiate insofar as it furthers their objectives, and use force to secure the rest. The report concludes that the Taliban’s “intent appears to be to continue to strengthen its military position as leverage. It believes that it can achieve almost all of its objectives by negotiation or, if necessary, by force.”

The best-case scenario—some form of power-sharing agreement whereby the Taliban participate in a redesigned political system instead of resorting to violence—would likely require strong American financial and military support for the Afghan government, as well as immense pressure on those sympathetic to the insurgents, such as Pakistan. Therefore, the probability of this outcome is vanishingly slim. Even if it occurred, the Taliban are highly unlikely to consent to any compromise that does not move Afghanistan in the direction they took it in the 1990s. For many, concession on women’s rights, minority rights, and certain political freedoms is an unacceptable price to pay for a peace deal. 

The costs of war

The human cost of two decades of post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan is eye-watering. Nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, as well as an estimated 66,000 Afghan military and police, 2,500 American personnel and over 1,000 from allied states; 50,000 Taliban and other opposition fighters have also lost their lives. 

According to the UN’s Human Rights Agency, Afghanistan has the third-largest displaced population in the world, bringing the total to over 3.5 million people, out of a population of 40 million—not to mention large numbers of refugees making their way to Iran and Turkey. Recently, the UN’s top humanitarian official in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, warned of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe”, as food insecurity caused by drought and displacement put more than half of the country’s population in immediate need of aid merely to survive. 

The economic cost of conflict is also staggering. Afghanistan’s GDP is no higher than it was a decade ago. The lack of economic growth can, at most, serve as an indicator of wasted human dynamism and potential which have no metric. 

Even ending the conflict with a deal acceptable to both sides comes with a hefty price tag. As events in Afghanistan unfold, the world hopes against hope that, sooner rather than later, the costs of conflict stop racking up—indeed, many fear it is turning out to be little more than that: a hope.