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 its prospects are dimmed by divisions within the Taliban. A departure of foreign troops in the absence of a peace agreement would leave a weak Afghan military to fend off the tenacious Taliban on its own.

The Situation

According to a U.S. Defense Department report, effective enemy attacks and casualties among Afghan forces increased in 2015, the year the Afghan military officially took responsibility for the country’s security. 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 plans to exit Afghanistan twice. In his second announcement, he said in October that the U.S. force in Afghanistan would remain at its current strength through most of 2016 and that about 5,500 troops would stay into 2017. For 15 days in September and October, the Taliban held Kunduz, the first major city to fall to them since they were driven from power by a U.S. invasion in 2001. The conquest set off a battle that included a U.S. air strike on a hospital that killed 22 people. The opening of formal peace talks between the government and Taliban representatives, in July in Pakistan, had created some hope for a political solution to the conflict, but a further round of negotiations has yet to take place.

Sources: ISAF, U.S. Department of Defense, Brookings Institution
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 $650 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 insurgency and prevent the re-emergence 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 authorized the deployment of 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 U.S. Defense Department report assessed security in Afghanistan.
  • 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.
  • The website for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the NATO coalition.
  • Bloomberg News coverage of Afghanistan.
  • UN report on corruption in Afghanistan. 

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First Published April 1, 2014

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Lisa Beyer at