Today, September 11th 2021, the United States of America commemorates the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Everyone remembers where they were when they first saw the images of the hijacked airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers. The weeks and months after 9/11 altered the course of the geopolitical landscape with lasting consequences to this day.
As the sun set on the deadliest day of American history, the American people gathered in their homes to listen to then President, George W Bush. In a televised address to the nation, he declared ‘war on terrorism’ with a promise to make ‘no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them’ - which became known as the ‘Bush Doctrine’.
Afghanistan was identified as a country that presented a significant threat to American national security and the wider global security. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan with a brutal and merciless grip and, after refusing to agree to the ultimatum issued by the US which included extraditing Osama bin Laden and the leaders of Al-Qaeda, fate of Afghanistan was sealed.
The decision to go to war
On 7th October 2001, American and coalition forces commenced combat operations in Afghanistan under the codename, Operation Enduring Freedom. Whilst international combat operations formally ended in 2014, American and coalition forces remained in a non-combative capacity to help bolster security in the country, train the Afghan Army and to support the Afghan Government under the leadership of Ashraf Ghani.
In July of this summer, President Biden vowed to bring home the remaining US troops. Thus, drawing to a close America’s longest war.
After Joe Biden was sworn in as Barack Obama’s Vice President, he held a private function in his official residence - the Naval Observatory in Washington DC. The topic on the cards for discussion was Afghanistan. Joe Biden was clear - he did not believe America should have a military presence in Afghanistan.
Since the attacks of 9/11, US military operations in Afghanistan have been viewed through the broader lens of so-called ‘war on terror.’ But it now appears America had much more narrow objectives. The original mission - the elimination of Osama Bin Laden was completed in 2011 and, as President Biden put it plainly, "our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralised democracy."
The West in Afghanistan: Mission accomplished?
The chaotic and, indeed, shambolic drawdown of international military presence in Afghanistan was beamed across our TV screens. After 20 years, a financial cost of $2 trillion and a human cost of over 200,000 people, the question many are asking, particularly those who served in Afghanistan is - was it worth it?
The first years of the war brought success. American and coalition forces broke up Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban government that had hosted the terrorist network.
Ret. Lt Gen. Douglas Lute argues that the proof of the success of US military action in Afghanistan is that Al Qaeda has not been able to mount a major attack on the West since 2005. He maintains that military operations "decimated Al-Qaeda in that region, in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
But after that came the gruelling second phase of the war. It now appears that what the second half of the conflict bought was time - a grace period for Afghanistan's government, security forces and the Afghan people to try to build enough strength to survive on their own.
Quality of life in some ways did improve, even modernising under the international occupation. Infant mortality rates fell by half. In 2005, fewer than 1 in 4 Afghans had access to electricity. By 2019, nearly all did.
The second half of the war allowed Afghan women, in particular, opportunities entirely denied them under the fundamentalist Islamic rule imposed by the Taliban, so that more than 1 in 3 teenage girls today, their whole lives spent under the protection of Western forces, can read and write.
But it's that longest, second phase of the war that looks to be on the verge of complete failure.
The war left the Taliban undefeated and failed to secure a political settlement. Taliban forces swept across two-thirds of the country and captured provincial capitals on the path of victory before US combat forces even completed their withdrawal. On many fronts, the Taliban rolled over the Afghan security forces that US and NATO forces spent two decades working to build.
This swift advance set up a last stand in Kabul. The heart rendering scenes at Kabul airport captured the fear and desperation of those fleeing the sweeping tide of the Taliban which has, once again, consumed Afghanistan. Even more tragically, the US Air Force Office of Special Investigations recently announced an investigation into human remains found in the wheel well of a C-17 that took off from Kabul's International Airport. The image of the USAF Chinook helicopter on the roof of the US Embassy in Kabul, assisting in the evacuation of staff has been labelled Biden’s ‘Saigon moment.’
Over 20 years, the Taliban absorbed attack after attack and suffered heavy losses. However, it is clear they have adapted and got smart. It remains to be seen if they can be trusted.
‘China’s deal with the Devil’
The US’s disastrous departure from Afghanistan has provided much material for China’s propaganda machines to discredit the Western foreign policy.
On July 28, 2021, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, met in Tianjin with the visiting delegation led by head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The heads of the Afghan Taliban's religious council and publicity committee were also part of the delegation.
Shamaila Khan, director of emerging market debt at AllianceBernstein, has warned that the Taliban has emerged with control to resources that are a "very dangerous proposition for the world," with minerals in Afghanistan that "can be exploited." Resources that the Chinese state would certainly like to acquire to ensure the continued economic rise of China.
Indeed, only hours after the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said Beijing was ready for "friendly cooperation with Afghanistan."
The Chinese state-run tabloid, Global Times, stated that China can "contribute to post-war reconstruction and development, pushing forward projects under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)." The BRI is a mammoth infrastructure investment plan to build rail, road, sea and other routes stretching from China to Central Asia, Africa and Europe. It is clear that China intends to fill, and indeed, exploit the vacuum left by absence of US and Western forces.
Can America and her allies ever be trusted again?
For the Afghan people, particularly those who worked for the coalition forces, the feelings of betrayal and anger are undoubtedly prevalent. They feel abandoned and powerless as the evil and dark cloud of the Taliban once again looms over their land. Despite promises from countries to take in Afghan refugees, the people of Afghanistan are once again forced to flee their homeland or face the brutal reality of Taliban rule.
Former UK military veterans minister Johnny Mercer, who served as a soldier in Afghanistan, said the UK had "chosen defeat" and that recent events in the region amounted to a "tragedy for the Afghan people."
In the US, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell launched a scathing attack on President Biden's decision to withdraw troops, describing it as a "reckless policy" with a risk of "an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975".
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the 20 year debacle in Afghanistan. Perhaps the effort to rebuild the country was doomed from the start. The deal cut between the Taliban and the Trump administration was overly ambitious and put a lot of trust in the Taliban with no enforcement mechanism for the Taliban to keep its word. But the abandonment of the Afghan people who helped coalition forces and put their trust in them is a final, gratuitous shame that should have been avoided.
The Biden administration failed to heed the warnings on Afghanistan, failed to act with urgency, failed in its intelligence gathering - and its failure has left Afghanistan in a perilous state. This betrayal will live in infamy. The burden of shame falls on President Joe Biden. Whilst the decision to withdraw troops in the first place has been criticised, this has been a foreign policy objective for Biden’s two predecessors, Obama and Trump. The shame is in the manner in which the withdrawal has been completed, a withdrawal which has cost the lives of 13 US service personnel.
In the days and weeks to come, and as the Taliban undoubtedly continue to take further control of Afghanistan, attention will turn to the response of the UN. The management of the humanitarian crisis unfolding, including the resettlement of refugees will be vital to minimise loss of life. However, it is a blunt reality that the future of Afghanistan rests in the hands of the Afghan people.
The end of the 9/11 era
The allied departure from Afghanistan is a recognition there will be no victory in the ‘war on terror.’ As it finally draws to a close, the conflict in Afghanistan is, once again, a sobering reminder to the US on the limitations of the use of military intervention to shape and form a country. As the 9/11 era finally ends, what will shape the eras to come is sustainable and genuine politics with foreign policies that adhere to the universal values that America and other western countries claim to uphold and defend.
Gerard Scullion is 20 and from Carnlough, East Antrim. He studies Law at Queen’s University Belfast and takes an interest in matters of faith and politics.