Shortcuts / 14 July 2021


The US and its allies withdrawing the last of their troops from Afghanistan despite the rise in violence from the Taliban has sharpened concerns about a civil war. In this Squiz Shortcut, we’ll get you across a (very) brief history of Afghanistan, why the US, Oz and other nations got involved, and what’s might be next.

Where do we start?
It’s a fair question because there is a loooong history to this.

Well, you don’t have to be a champion to start, but you have to start to be a champion…
Thanks for the pep talk… Let’s start by getting familiar with the area we’re talking about. Afghanistan is at the crossroads of Central and South Asia and is bordered by Pakistan to the east, Iran to the west and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China to the north.

Its religious history?
There were a series of Buddhist dynasties before Islamic leaders became dominant between the 9th and 12th centuries.

Can we fast forward a bit…
Good call. In the late 19th century tensions in the region between the British and Russian empires flared. For a time, the British were in control but Afghanistan became independent after World War 1 with King Amanullah Khan in charge. And during the 1950s and 60s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernised lifestyle for Afghans.

Yeah, because wasn’t Kabul quite modern in that period?
You might be thinking of an iconic image of 3 women in the 1970’s walking in Kabul. Experts say that wasn’t a widespread thing, only a privileged few were leading that sort of life.

And it obviously didn’t become more widespread…
No. Things were tumultuous politically, and in 1978 the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan overthrew the monarchy.

How did that go down?
That’s when things started to fracture – a civil war was unleashed by the Mujahideen fighting the communists.

That’ll need some explaining…
The Mujahideen were groups of Muslim guerilla fighters led by regional warlords.

Right. And where did that leave things?
That brought about the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s with the USSR getting involved to back the Communist government. And that saw the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and others drawn in to support the Mujahideen with billions of dollars in cash and weapons.

So nations like the US backed the forerunners of today’s Taliban?
In the name of beating Russia, yes.


How long did that war last?
Until 1989 when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Up to 2 million Afghans died in the war – and things still weren’t settled. Those groups within the Mujahideen then fought for supremacy, and eventually, the Taliban took power in 1996.

How did that go down?
Exhausted by years of drought, famine and war, the Taliban was welcomed by many. But it didn’t take long for locals to realise what the Taliban’s rule would mean.

Like what?
They became known for their harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. It was brutal – especially towards women – and there were huge massacres. They also denied international aid of food supplies to those starving and burned out huge areas of farming land – all to gain power over the nation.

And there were strict rules, right?
Indeed. Men were required to grow beards and women had to wear the all-covering burka. There were also bans on television, music and cinema and a crackdown on education – particularly for girls.

How was the Taliban viewed by the rest of the world?
Only 3 countries recognised the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Ok, what next?
On 11 September 2001, the world changed. We’re talking about the terror attacks on the US – the deadliest in the country’s history with 2,977 people killed. At the centre of it was the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda.

What is al-Qaeda?
It was a group formed by Osama bin Laden and other Islamists in Afghanistan in 1988 during the fight against the Soviets. After that war, the group turned its focus to the US because it believed America was an obstacle to establishing an Islamic state.

Gotcha. So then what happened?
In October 2001, US President George W Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom. The idea was to stop the Taliban from providing a safe haven to al-Qaeda and to stop the group from using Afghanistan as a base for terrorist activities.

It wasn’t just the US involved though, was it?
No. It had support from its NATO allies – that’s a group of European and Northern American countries like Canada, Germany and the UK. And Australia was also on board. Our government was one of the first to give its backing to military action and in the end, 26,000 Aussie soldiers served in Afghanistan.

So how did the operation go?
Just a few weeks later, the Taliban was kicked out of the capital, Kabul. Meetings with the United Nations ensued and long story short, Hamid Karzai became interim leader – someone the US backed.

So if that’s the case, why did this war go on for so long?
There was still fighting with Taliban forces across the country, and despite one of the largest manhunts in the world, bin Laden and al-Qaeda remained at large.

But the US eventually got bin Laden…
It did. Years later in 2011, bin Laden was finally tracked down and killed by US forces at a hideout in Pakistan. And at that point, President Barack Obama laid out a plan to withdraw 30,000 US troops by 2012 – and had hoped to withdraw all troops by 2014.

That obviously didn’t happen…
No, but the nature of the engagement changed. American soldiers and those from allies like Oz stayed to help train and support local forces.

So how did they make that transition?
There were a lot of talks. Efforts to broker peace deals between the Taliban and Afghan Government came and went, but the Taliban continued to target local forces and civilians. Then came 2016, and with it, a new US president, Donald Trump.

He wanted America out?
Yup. Trump had said throughout his presidential campaign that he would put an end to America’s involvement in the “forever war” that had killed almost 40,000 Afghan civilians and 2,400 US military personnel. But when he took office in 2017, he pledged an extra 3,000 troops…

Why’s that?
Because Afghan security forces were struggling to fend off the Taliban. But Trump said his change in approach was on the basis that US soldiers would be there to kill terrorists, not nation-build.

So how did we get to the point where US troops are now out?
The US held long and difficult peace talks with the Taliban, and in February 2020 a deal was done.

What’s in the fine print?
The US agreed to pull out its soldiers by May 2021 on the condition that the Taliban would not let Afghanistan be used as a haven for terror groups like al-Qaeda. The next step was for the Taliban was to have peace talks with the Afghan Government.

And did that happen?
Yup. But talks stalled after the Taliban attacks continued. The US did keep its side of the deal though and by the time President Joe Biden took office in 2021, troop numbers came down.

So Biden was on board with Trump’s approach?
Yeah, and he’s overseen the withdrawal of all US troops – albeit a bit later than the original deadline.

And what about Aussie troops?
Our last 80 troops left in recent weeks.

And the violence that we’ve seen on the telly?
It’s ramping up. The Taliban has taken control of about a third of the country’s nearly 400 districts.

Geez, I think I know where this going…
You’re not the only one… US intelligence agencies say Afghanistan’s government could collapse in a matter of months after the last of the US military is withdrawn in August. And experts believe it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban retake the capital Kabul…

So what’s the Afghan Government doing about all this?
President Ashraf Ghani is fighting to stay in control. His government is now turning to warlords and influential tribal figures for support to put together anti-Taliban militias. And the government is calling on the people to join the fight against the Taliban.

So more war and misery…
Looks like it. It’s a real mess.

Squiz recommends:

Reading: The profiles of the 41 Aussie soldiers who died during the war in Afghanistan, to remember who they were and the sacrifice they made.

Watching: Charlie Wilson’s War – Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, based on a cracking true story about America’s support for the Mujahideen. It’s on many streaming platforms.

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