Sept. 27 marks the 25th anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Kabul, initiating their ostensible rule of Afghanistan. Sept. 11 marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon, and the downing of a hijacked airliner in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The latter date is seared into the memory of many Americans; the former date, not so much.
As America pulls its uniformed forces from Afghanistan, it might be helpful to review what transpired there in the five years before U.S. troops arrived. This period set the stage for the longest foreign war the U.S. Army has ever fought. Understanding it might enhance an appreciation of what is likely to happen next—or what could await the U.S. Army if it is called upon to return.
Afghanistan has a long tradition of ungovernability. Only 15% of the land, widely scattered, supports agriculture. The rest is mountain and desert. The population divides into four major and a dozen minor ethnic groups speaking three major and over two dozen minor languages. These groups have long battled each other fiercely, enmities made more ferocious by divisions within the majority religion of Islam itself. Illiteracy is chronic and exceeded 80% as the 21st century turned.
Historical maps neatly tucking Afghanistan into one empire or another, or presenting it as a nation in its own right, have been illusory. Since time immemorial, actual power has rested with clan- and ethnically based local warlords, regime changes have been by force, and military services have gone to the highest bidder.
In 1979, the Soviet Union tried its hand at imposing centralized governance on Afghanistan, only to withdraw 10 years later after heavy losses and brutal fighting with mujahedeen holy warriors. The Afghan government it left behind faced continuing resistance. Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum established a protostate around Mazar-e-Sharif, supported by Uzbekistan. Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud controlled the Panjshir Valley and extended his governance from it.
Another Tajik, Ismail Khan, came to power in Herat. Abdul Ali Mazari, a Hazara and thus a Shiite, was supported by Iran and controlled Hazara territories in central Afghanistan. Each of these ethnic warlords had lieutenants demonstrating varying degrees of reliability, autonomy and effectiveness.
Pashtuns, comprising almost half the Afghan population, also resisted, albeit on a fragmented and tribal basis. Mohammad Yunus Khalis of the Khugiani Pashtun was strongest in Nangarhar Province, and Jalaluddin Haqqani of the Zadran Pashtun around Khost. Abdul Haq of the Ahmadzai Pashtun coordinated operations around Kabul. Hamid Karzai of the Popalzai Pashtun and Gul Agha Sherzai of the Barakzai Pashtun were both connected to Kandahar. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Kharoti Pashtun enjoyed Pakistani support and drew heavily on young men who had been refugees there. Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a Sunni religious hardliner, was subsidized by Wahhabist Saudi Arabians. His support included a contingent of foreigners led by Osama bin Laden.
Mohammad Najibullah, head of the remnant Afghan government, initially was flush with Soviet cash and equipment and enjoyed early battlefield successes—abetted by rivalries among the mujahedeen who opposed him. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 dried up support from this source. Dostum, who had been assisting Najibullah, switched sides in February 1992 and united with Massoud in a march on Kabul from the north. Hekmatyar launched an offensive of his own on Kabul from the south.
Najibullah took refuge in the U.N. compound in Kabul as his Soviet-inspired regime and army collapsed. The bulk of the victorious mujahedeen attempted to form a follow-on inclusive regime under Burhanuddin Rabbani, an Islamic scholar with a reputation for coalition-cobbling.
Jockeying for Power
Hekmatyar would have nothing of it. Supported by Pakistanis and being Pashtun, whereas Rabbani was Tajik, Hekmatyar saw himself on a clear path to supreme power. He surrounded Kabul and began lobbing rockets into it. Dostum decoupled from Massoud and joined Hekmatyar. Meanwhile, Sayyaf saw an opportunity to evict “infidel” Shiite Hazaras from Kabul and, with his fanatic followers, perpetrated horrible massacres there. The Hazara fought back. Fighting ebbed and flowed around Kabul and elsewhere. Massoud seems to have gotten the better of all this, but not by much.
Amid this chaos, some reports say, in the spring of 1994, a group of religious students (Talib) led by Mohammad Omar rescued two young girls who had been kidnapped and raped by local mujahedeen near Kandahar. The group hanged the mujahedeen commander responsible and set about redressing other injustices. One thing led to another, and Omar soon led over 12,000 Taliban in Kandahar dedicated to strict interpretations of Islamic justice. Many of these had been raised in refugee camps in Pakistan and educated in fundamentalist madrasa (Islamic schools). They had little memory of lineage, tribe or ancestral home. Instead, fierce religious convictions taught in the madrasa animated them.
Whatever the truth of the Taliban’s origins, Pakistani leaders were not long in taking advantage of the movement. Hekmatyar had proven a flawed instrument in Pakistani efforts to dominate in Afghanistan. His campaigning had been largely ineffective, and his reputation for mendacity, treachery and brutality was extreme. The Taliban, on the other hand, were accumulating a reputation for effective if severe governance and capable campaigning. Pakistani support shifted.
Pakistani leaders wanted a friendly and, preferably, dependent regime in Afghanistan. They also wanted to curtail Indian and Iranian interests there and, to a lesser extent, those of other nations. They wanted to quell the notion of a Pashtun state encompassing all Pashtun lands, preferring the borders as they were and the Pakistani Pashtun as a minority within their own country. They wanted commercial routes into Central Asia without the costs and access being subject to the whims of local warlords. The strict Sharia law as practiced by the Taliban did not appeal to all Pakistani leaders but was tolerable to most.
Assisted by Pakistani support and advisers, the Taliban broadened their grip. They facilitated the passage of Pakistani commercial traffic, seizing such critical nodes as Spin Boldak and Kandahar near the Pakistani border as they did so. They overran provinces. By February 1995, they seized Ghazni and were within 35 miles of Kabul. Then, their wide-ranging offensives faltered. Khan inflicted a stinging defeat on them at Shindad, and Massoud evicted them from Kabul. In this crisis, Taliban allies in Pakistan came through, dispatching 25,000 new “volunteers” from madrasa and elsewhere. The Taliban returned to the offensive, seized Herat and again marching on Kabul. Khan fled to Iran.
The Taliban took Jalalabad on Sept. 5, 1996, and marched into Kabul on Sept. 27. Massoud, Dostum and Hekmatyar fled the city. Taliban fighters broke into the U.N. compound, seized and tortured Najibullah, and hanged him from a lamppost for all to see. Harsh fundamentalist rule followed. Women disappeared into burqas, were banned from schools and workplaces and were only permitted on the streets under escort. Men without beards were accosted or worse. “Inappropriate” music, television, movies, games and even the flying of kites were proscribed. Omar had already appeared in public in the purported cloak of the prophet Muhammad. He presented himself as the leader of all Muslims, not just the Taliban.
Control of Kabul hardly guaranteed control of Afghanistan. Dostum blocked access to northern Afghanistan through the Salang Tunnel. Massoud retook Bagram. One of Dostum’s commanders, Abdul Malik, defected and enabled the Taliban to enter Mazar-e-Sharif. Almost immediately, the residents of Mazar-e-Sharif revolted against Taliban rule. Malik switched sides again to join them. Massoud counterattacked in the east. The Taliban took thousands of casualties in these twin debacles.
Taliban withdrawals toward Kabul and Kandahar were accompanied by deliberate acts of devastation and massacre. Hundreds died and thousands fled. These atrocities deepened already existing ethnic enmities. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras came to regard the Taliban as foreign invaders, Pashtun agents of Pakistan. Indeed, Massoud’s counteroffensive killed 250 and captured 550 fighters who were identifiably Pakistani rather than Afghan. Other nations sought to thwart Pakistani ambitions. Uzbekistan assisted Dostum, India and Russia helped Massoud, and Iran supported the Hazara.
As Taliban control ebbed, anti-Taliban Hazara and Uzbeks fell out with each other and started fighting. Detecting opportunity, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia doubled down on their materiel and financial support to the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Taliban garnered impressive profits from the drug trade. They facilitated a 25% increase in opium production between 1995 and 1997; Afghan opium would account for 72% of the world’s supply by 2000. The Taliban rebuffed U.N. overtures to limit drug traffic, dismissing moral arguments by noting that the intended customers were infidels, not good Muslims.
By the summer of 1998, the Taliban were ready for another offensive. In August, they seized Mazar-e-Sharif and in September, Bamian. These advances were accompanied by horrific atrocities. Iran almost went to war when 13 Iranian diplomats were caught up in the slaughter. Tanks and artillery joined the Taliban inventory. Depopulation became a conscious tactic, with perhaps 250,000 refugees chased off the Shomali Plain north of Kabul in 1999, for example. Further madrasa students poured in from Pakistan. In 2000, Taliban offensives forced Massoud out of Taloqan and back into his base in the Panjshir Valley. On Sept. 9, 2001, suicide bombers posing as journalists killed Massoud.
The U.S. Army, busy elsewhere, took little interest in these Afghan developments. The U.S. government assumed a hands-off approach after the Soviet departure. The U.S. had largely worked through the Pakistanis to extend support to the mujahedeen as the mujahedeen fought the Soviets, and the U.S. government continued to prioritize that alliance.
The more Americans learned about the Taliban, the less they liked them, but the nation did little directly. Admonitions and diplomatic overtures concerning atrocities, human rights and drug trafficking were generally routed through the U.N.—and generally ignored. The Taliban became international pariahs. The Saudis disavowed them, and only Pakistanis continued in their support.
A caveat to American disinterest in Afghanistan stemmed from the pernicious activities of Osama bin Laden, “guest” of the Taliban and sworn enemy of the U.S. Devastating bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the USS Cole at Yemen traced back to bin Laden and his operatives in al-Qaida. So did a foiled bombing of Los Angeles International Airport. Cruise missiles were launched and assets frozen, with little effect.
On Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida launched its most spectacular attack of all, flying hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A third hijacked airliner went down in Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people were killed in total.
The Taliban refused to surrender bin Laden and al-Qaida to justice. U.S. forces, with Army special operations forces in the lead, intervened in Afghanistan, assisted in overthrowing the Taliban, hounded al-Qaida, ultimately killed bin Laden and did what they could over time to facilitate a popularly elected Afghan central government with reliable armed forces.
After 20 years of such efforts, American strategic patience has become temporarily exhausted, and we have asked the Afghans to carry on without U.S. forces in the country. The good news is that al-Qaida has been so harried, distracted and damaged that it has yet to mount another major attack on the U.S. The bad news is that the Taliban is resurgent, and Afghanistan’s traditional ethnic and political discord remains, even with a central government that has been popularly elected—albeit with contested results.
Hopefully, the U.S. and its allies have imparted enough time, attention, training and resources that the present Afghan government will survive and move forward—assisted by the U.S. with all except uniformed manpower. If this fails, disintegration seems likely, but an effective Taliban takeover less so.
Even if the Taliban momentarily sweep across the map, ethnic enmities and the extreme dispersal of the country across rugged terrain will remain. The ethnic warlords of the 1990s or their successors are still powerful. A disintegration of the national armed forces would flush trained men and equipment back into the ethnic militia from which many came. The militia themselves are already reorganizing and rearming. Many Afghans hate the Taliban for reasons that have nothing to do with America. The ease with which they were overthrown in 2001 suggests the difficulties they would have achieving actual control.
Pakistanis seem to have played a double game, generally cooperating against international terrorism but also defying efforts to dismantle their Taliban Pashtun proteges. Taliban expansion will be seen as Pakistani empire building. The Iranians, Indians, Turkmen, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Russians are unlikely to surrender the field of the “Great Game” just because the U.S. has left it. Each has their interests and advocates in Afghanistan and will move to support them.
If Afghanistan’s central government fails, the next five years in Afghanistan seem likely to resemble the five years that preceded the arrival of U.S. Army and other forces in the fall of 2001.
For the U.S. Army, the most critical issue will be whether international terrorists intending attacks on the U.S. return to Afghanistan as a haven—under the auspices of the Taliban or anyone else. Intelligence assets and overtures to potential allies, in governments or elsewhere, will focus on this threat. It will shape U.S. interests and reflects American determination to avoid a repeat of 9/11. Only international terrorism seems likely to return U.S. Army boots to the ground in Afghanistan, whether briefly or for extended operations.
If this happens, an understanding of what emerged between 1996 and 2001, what we encountered in 2001, and how we handled both will be vital.
Brig. Gen. John Brown, U.S. Army retired, served 33 years in the Army, with his last assignment as chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. The author of Kevlar Legions: The Transformation of the United States Army, 1989–2005, he has a doctorate in history from Indiana University.
Briscoe, Charles, et. al., Weapon of Choice: ARSOF in Afghanistan (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2004)
Gunaratna, Rohan, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (New York: Berkeley Books, 2003)
Stewart, Richard, Operation Enduring Freedom: The United States Army in Afghanistan, October 2001–March 2002 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2004)