Taliban Rule in Afghanistan, 20 years later: How Did We Get Here?

Words by: Emma Spencer

CW: war, violence, terrorism, misogyny

A two-decade-long war has come to an abrupt, chaotic halt as the US and its allies withdraw forces from Afghanistan. At least 240,000 people have directly lost their lives in the conflict, with thousands more indirectly injured or dying. 20 years and more than two trillion USD has been spent in the efforts to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent Taliban control in Afghanistan, and yet the country has been rapidly plunged back into the authoritarian rule of the Taliban.

The US-led ‘War on Terror’一 which was authorised by the UN Security Council 一 commenced with the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, mere weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The war had the stated objectives of finding and defeating al-Qaeda and countering the Taliban regime, however, the mission also had more ambiguous aims, namely: democratisation, nation-building, and human and women’s rights promotion

The people of Afghanistan have been suffering from the fallouts of foreign occupation since the Soviet invasion of 1979, so there was optimism among many civilians that this war might bring an end to decades of oppression and violence. A multitude of failures during the 20 years of the War on Terror, however, has lost the hearts and minds of Afghan civilians. 

Primarily, it has been the plight of Afghan civilians as collateral damage 一 where more than 71,000 innocent Afghan people have been killed 一 which has seen the morality and purpose of the war questioned. While the majority of civilian deaths have been at the hands of the Taliban and insurgent groups, others have been caused by the US and allied forces airstrikes. I believe that this indiscriminate loss of innocent lives is the greatest tragedy of the conflict and is a further injustice for the Afghan people who have already suffered so much.  

Recent events, including President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country, have highlighted the flawed and dysfunctional government system created in the last 20 years. There has been widespread corruption across all government agencies, leading to deep distrust of the country’s institutions. A UN report on corruption in government found that in 2009 alone, Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribes to authorities, making up a staggering 23 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The other failure, which surprised both allied forces and much of the international community, was the lack of resistance shown by the Afghan National Army in the face of Taliban insurgency. Despite spending 20 years and $83 billion USD training and resourcing the Afghan national forces, the army failed to contest the capital Kabul, making Taliban rule all but inevitable. There are many theorised reasons for this failure, namely: a lack of will and morale among soldiers due to entrenched corruption by commanders, inadequate training and illiteracy among soldiers, high death and attrition rates in the force, the US and allied forces withdrawing abruptly, and finally, little faith among soldiers that others would continue to fight or support them. Ultimately, for the remaining Afghan National Army soldiers, it was a better option to collectively surrender to the Taliban than to stay and fight.

Importantly, a lot of progress has been made in Afghanistan in the 20 years since 2001. When the war began, no girls were receiving an education, but by 2020, 3.5 million girls were in school, as well as an additional six million boys. Sixty-nine women held seats in Parliament, making up 27 per cent of all representatives. Maternal mortality rates halved between 2002 and 2016, and access to clean drinking water increased by 45 per cent over two decades.

Concerningly, however, much of this progress is now threatened by the impending Taliban rule. The lives, rights and freedoms of women, girls, religious and ethnic minorities are particularly at risk of suppression 一 and already, many of their fears are coming true. Women in Afghanistan are reporting that their rights are being rolled back and that the oppressive Taliban regime of 20 years ago is now returning. Schools and libraries are being burnt down, women cannot leave the house without a burqa and a male chaperone, and girls are once again being denied an education. 

The rise of extremist terror groups such as ISIS-K in Afghanistan is also posing a grave threat. On May 8, a high school for Hazara girls was bombed by Islamic State militants, killing 80 people, mostly students. At least 160 Afghan civilians and 13 US troops were killed by an ISIS-K bombing of Kabul airport on August 26, with more attacks anticipated. 

It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to have your hopes and dreams for the future ripped away so suddenly. Being able to follow my passions and pursue a career at university has been so empowering and exciting. It’s only since watching the plight of girls and women in Afghanistan that I’ve truly realised just how much of a privilege and a gift education can be, and how devastating it would be to lose those opportunities.

Ultimately, it appears that so much of the progress made over the last 20 years in Afghanistan will be quickly undone. This raises critical questions about the costs of the War on Terror: how have so many failures occurred? How can the innocent citizens of Afghanistan, who have endured decades of conflict and foreign occupation, be protected and empowered in this terrifying period?

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