A History of the Afghanistan War, part 1

With enough time, any victory can be turned into defeat

I am certainly not a primary source for the Afghanistan War1. I have never been to Afghanistan; the closest I have come is Bangalore2, Hong Kong3, or Jerusalem4.

You may have noticed there are 4 footnotes on naming in that one paragraph. One of the tasks of a historian is naming things. I am acting as a historian, and as a secondary source. It is said that naming things is one of the hardest parts of computer science5, and that applies equally to history.

This is an attempt to use the facts of history to understand a narrative. The story those facts tell is mine, like Pi Patel you can choose to believe what you want. As we have already established, the facts are not mine to invent; anything controversial will be footnoted, anything else that is important will include Wikipedia links6.

In The Year 2000

The year two thousand. The end of the Twentieth Century. Computer literacy is still moderate7 and the dot-com bubble has popped.

The United States is at peace. The Soviet Union is a relic of history; its various successor states suffer from decreases in living conditions, and in Russia Boris Yeltsin has abdicated in favor of his successor Vladimir Putin. China is experiencing rapid economic development under the policies of Deng Xiaoping. In Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, no friend of Deobandi Islam, recently assumed power in a military coup. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban control much of the country in a cold civil war.

Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war since 1978. The first ten years were a proxy war of the Cold War that left the country with no strong central government. In the mid-1990s, a group called the Taliban achieved power in much of the country. The Taliban era was notorious for acts of barbarism.

Four Casus Belli

I consider it without a doubt true that the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan was justified. Perhaps not each of these reasons on their own would justify an invasion, but collectively they surely do.

  • a crime against antiquity8: the Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas

  • a disruption of trade9: in 2001, the Taliban nearly eliminated production of the major cash crop, opium

  • a demonstration of treachery10: the murder of Ahmed Shah Massoud. “On 9 September 2001, two French-speaking Algerians posing as journalists killed Massoud in a suicide attack in Takhar Province of Afghanistan.” (diff 1043924482)

  • the housing of a criminal11: Osama bin Laden, organizer of the September 11th attacks

After September 11, War was inevitable. The Bush administration supported War, and the American public supported War, so there was War. In practice, there was never a congressional “Declaration of War” against the Taliban regime, only the Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001 passed seven days later which allowed for US interference in the ongoing Civil War.

A Quick Military Victory

The diplomatic dancing and logistical preparations took around four weeks. On October 7, 2001, the US deployed air strikes against Taliban military targets. Major cities were captured by the Northern Alliance soon after: Mazar-i-Sharif in early November and Kabul soon after. On December 22, 2001, an Afghan interim administration was established, which was not a successor state to the Northern Alliance government12.

There are rumors13 that the Taliban offered to surrender in December 2001, and that surrender was declined. It is unclear what type of surrender is meant, and I doubt the public statements define it. The three necessary points would have been:

  • Osama bin Laden and certain associates must be handed over for trial and punishment through a UN-determined process.

  • The Taliban must be at peace with the government established by the Afghan interim administration.

  • The Taliban must dissolve its militias and surrender certain of its weapons-of-war.

Regardless of rumors, there was no surrender, nor any agreement with the Taliban.

Hamid Karzai, loya jirga, and a government built to fail

Hamid Karzai was born in 1957 in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. The son of a tribal leader, Karzai opposed the Soviet-backed government in the 1980s, and served as Deputy Foreign Minister under the Burhanuddin Rabbani government of the early 1990s. After his father’s murder in 1999, Karzai became head of his tribe and actively opposed the Taliban, living in exile in Quetta, Pakistan and testifying before the US Senate in 2000 to try to get aid for anti-Taliban forces.14

In December 2001, Karzai became the interim head of state of Afghanistan. He would hold that position through 2014.

Karzai was first endorsed by a 2002 loya jirga to continue as head of state. Perhaps it is not surprising that the same result was reached, as the same political forces were involved in the discussion. Former king of Afghanistan Mohammed Zahir Shah was considered a candidate, but was pressured by the United States to withdraw. While the Bush administration promoted the loya jirga as a legitimizing event for the new government of Afghanistan, in hindsight it did not accomplish that.

A second loya jirga was held in 2003, to serve as a constitutional convention.15 Once again, it served more as a stage-managed coronation than as a deliberative body. The Constitution was already written by Karzai appointees, and only a few issues too important to be ignored (such as official languages) were discussed.16

The Constitution written was doomed to fail. It established a unitary state in a country with strong linguistic and tribal divides. Provincial governors were appointed by the Kabul regime, not by local elections. Parliamentary elections (the only elections other than those for president) were excessively complicated. It was not enough to have one person serve in a traditionally-unimportant role of Vice President, the constitution specified that there be two vice presidents.17 The Americans and the Afghans would both compete later to blame someone else for these flaws.


I’m not sure I will write Part 2 or Part 3 any time soon, but I might. Part 2 will cover the impact of the War in Iraq and the failure of the Bush and Obama administrations to make any significant progress against a Taliban insurgency. Part 3 will cover Ashraf Ghani, the Trump negotiations with the Taliban, and the return of Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad.

1

I expect that, when the history books are written in America, it will be called “the Afghanistan War”, in parallel to “the Korean War” and “the Vietnam War”.

2

Bangalore is the English name of the city named ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು (Kannada, pronounced “Bengaluru”) and that city is officially named Bengaluru in Indian English. Unlike other post-Independence place name changes in India (such as Chennai), this name has not been universally adapted.

3

Chinese 香港 and Emoji 🇭🇰. Pronounced “Xiang1 gang2” in Putonghua and Hèunggóng in Cantonese. The English name is Hong Kong. Due to the difficulties in English speakers recognizing tonal names and the variety of languages that use Kanji, we do not transliterate Chinese characters outside of footnotes.

4

Hebrew ירושלים pronounced “Yerushalayim”. As an RTL abjad, I discourage use of Modern Hebrew as a language. Jerusalem is an English word that occurs in the KJV Bible hundreds of times.

6

Certain Wikipedia links are “open links” - links to the concept; only content with my signature is considered endorsed. Other Wikipedia links are “diffs” - links to a specific text, written at a specific time, on a concept; we generally choose arbitrary diffs from late 2017 that we have verified are free of obvious vandalism. In 2017, Wikipedia generally had complete coverage of important historical topics. In particular, I rely heavily on DIFF 804022791 for the article [[Taliban]] and DIFF 794882156 for the article [[Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996-2001)|]]. Both are references throughout for non-controversial facts.

7

According to the US Census, 51% of households owned a computer in the year 2000 and 42% of households (80% of those with computers) had access to the internet (ref census.gov). Eleven years earlier, in the year 1989, only 15% of households owned a computer, and none had access to the internet. Households generally relied on land-line telephones on telephone line.

8

The defense would be that the LORD Allah prohibits idolatry, not the Taliban.

9

The defense would be that opium is an illegal drug, and there has been external pressure to ban production for hundreds of years.

10

The defense being that they were in a state of War, and that War hath no laws other than “kill or be killed”.

11

The defense being Melmastya, roughly translated from the Pashtun as “sacred right of hospitality”.

12

I do not have a direct citation for this. But I cannot see how it is a successor state. I recommend reading about the 2001 Bonn Agreement for more information.

13

Hunter S. Thompson once reported in Rolling Stone magazine that there were rumors about Ed Muskie potentially using an illegal drug named ibogaine. He did not report that he had started the rumors.

In this case, I have not started the rumors. Ref Commondreams.org.

15

I explicitly do not endorse the quality of the current Wikipedia article on the [[2003 loya jirga]]. I assume the American turn-of-focus to the Iraq War is partly responsible for the lack of coverage.

17

There are many sources that expound on the failure of the 2004 constitution. Two sources from 2021 include Akhilesh Pillalamarri’s piece at thediplomat.com and the article “The U.S. helped design Afghanistan’s constitution. It was built to fail.“ from the Washington Post.