Afghanistan has been labeled the “graveyard of empires” because neither Alexander the Great, the British nor the Soviets could successfully rule it. While the United States is a relatively new player in Afghanistan, political realities should guide any American administration’s goals and objectives there.
The United States first became involved in Afghanistan starting with Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in the context of the Cold War. In December 1979, the Soviet Red Army invaded Afghanistan to prop up the communist Afghan government. As a result, the United States and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, began to train, arm and fund the myriad groups collectively called the “Mujahidin” that opposed the Afghan government. Foreign fighters from around the Muslim world came to the aid of the Mujahidin, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Much of the weaponry came from the United States and was distributed to all anti-Soviet groups regardless of their political tendencies. Once the Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan in 1989, U.S. involvement decreased, but the civil war continued among the militias until 1996 when the Taliban came to control most of Afghanistan.
Under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. launched retaliatory missile strikes against bases in Afghanistan that had been involved in terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in October 2011 and ousted the Taliban with the aid of Afghan mujahidin primarily from the Northern Alliance. Bin Laden and his network of fighters known as “al-Qaeda,” or the base, were temporarily weakened.
However, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were able to regroup as the U.S. shifted its focus under President George W. Bush and launched a war against Iraq.
President Barack Obama promised to end the war in Iraq and refocus on “disrupting, dismantling and defeating” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to whitehouse.gov. While initially a surge of troops was promoted, in reaction to economic hard times and the realization that eradicating al-Qaeda and the Taliban is difficult and perhaps unrealistic, the U.S. has begun withdrawing troops. In May 2011, bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan. However, most of the recent news from Afghanistan has not been as positive. Some Afghan police and military personnel have turned on their American and coalition partners and joint security operations have been suspended. There is also a fear that the Taliban are just waiting for the American and ISAF troops to leave before they take over.
Any U.S. president will have to grapple with some thorny issues, including — to what extent should the Taliban be involved in a political solution, can Afghanistan be stabilized without the cooperation of neighboring states such as Pakistan and Iran (with which we have tenuous relations), how does the international community keep its promises made at donor conferences to help Afghan economic development in a time of a global recession and many more…
The task will be daunting but is not unachievable as long as expectations are grounded in historical, cultural and political realities.