The Afghanistan War

The longest war in American history is technically over. It ended when the U.S. and its NATO allies marked the official conclusion of their combat mission in Afghanistan as 2014 came to a close. But with the goal of stabilizing the country unachieved, plans for a U.S. exit have been delayed. The remaining 13,200 foreign troops in Afghanistan — 9,800 of them American — support a government that faces intensifying Taliban attacks. A peace deal conceivably could pacify the country, but getting the Taliban to commit even to negotiations has proved challenging. A departure of foreign troops in the absence of a peace agreement would leave a weak Afghan military to fend off its tenacious enemies on its own.

The Situation

The first year the Afghan military officially took responsibility for the country’s security, 2015, brought an escalation of the conflict, including an expansion of the Taliban's territorial reach. The number of internally displaced people increased almost 80 percent and more than 200,000 Afghans fled the turmoil for Europe, according to the United Nations. Doubts that the Afghan military, hampered by insufficient air power and heavy combat losses and desertions, would be prepared to stand on its own by scheduled withdrawals of American troops prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to slow the timetable for exiting Afghanistan twice. The U.S. force plans to remain at its current strength through most of 2016, with about 5,500 troops staying into 2017. The opening of formal peace talks between the government and Taliban representatives in mid-2015 had created some hope for a political solution to the conflict, but the Taliban afterward said it won't negotiate until all foreign forces leave the country. Persistent insecurity and low levels of economic growth have fed political opposition to the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

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Sources: ISAF, U.S. Department of Defense, Brookings Institution

The Background

In 1989, the Soviet military pulled out of Afghanistan, following in a centuries-long tradition of failed occupations. The U.S., which actively supported the Soviets’ opponents, including radical Islamist factions, also disengaged.  Bloody chaos followed until the Taliban seized Kabul from the warlords who all but leveled it. The Taliban imposed stern theocratic rule and gave al-Qaeda a base for training and for launching terrorist operations. After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered a U.S. invasion when the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. When Bin Laden and the Taliban leadership fled, the U.S. mission morphed into a nation-building undertaking — but with limited military resources, as the U.S. focused on Iraq. Eventually, more than 50 nations joined a NATO-led coalition. In 2009, Obama ordered a “surge” in forces that reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011. Military commanders reported progress on the ground, but war fatigue at home, especially after the killing of Bin Laden, led Obama to seek to wind down the American troop presence. The U.S. has spent an estimated $680 billion on the Afghanistan war. About 149,000 people have died in the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to a study by the Watson Institute for International Studies.

The Argument

Some U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers think it’s time to bring all the troops home. They fear getting drawn further into the fighting if the Kabul government falters. Others say that the U.S. shouldn’t just walk away after such a commitment of lives and money. They argue that, with help, the Afghan government can contain the Taliban and prevent the resurgence of al-Qaeda. Both sides point to Iraq, where the government forced the U.S. into a total withdrawal in 2011. The rise of Islamic State there prompted a return of U.S. forces three years later. The intervention began as a training and bombing mission, but non-combat troops have been killed and the military has deployed special forces. The Iraq experience can stand as a reminder of the perils of a complete pullout — or of the reasons for getting out before the bottom drops out.

The Reference Shelf

  • A report by the UN Secretary-General detailed the challenges facing Afghanistan.
  • A U.S. Defense Department report assessed security in the country.
  • The U.S. Congressional Research Service reviewed post-Taliban governance, security and U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
  • Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, prepared a four-volume report and analysis of the evolving conflict in Afghanistan.
  • Two Rand Corp. analysts, Seth G. Jones and Keith Crane, evaluate how the U.S. should manage the challenges accompanying the reduction in U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

First published April 1, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Aleksandra Gjorgievska in New York at agjorgievska@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net