The U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan is now well into its sixteenth year, making it America’s longest foreign war. Worse, there is no end in sight. In fact, military leaders are trying to convince President Trump to escalate U.S. involvement once more by sending several thousand additional troops into the fray. Pundits and foreign-policy commentators are engaged in a cottage industry to formulate yet more strategies to make the Afghanistan mission finally succeed.
There has been an American military presence in that unhappy country for so long that it is sometimes difficult to remember that the original purpose was both focused and limited. U.S. leaders justified the initial invasion in October 2001 as a necessary response to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States. Foreign fighters belonging to Al Qaeda had used the country as a safe haven and base of operations to plan and execute their devastating assault. The Taliban government of Mullah Omar had treated Osama bin Laden and his followers as honored guests, enabling them to carry out their plans.
That behavior caused a decisive change in U.S. policy toward Kabul. American officials had always viewed the Taliban regime with understandable distaste, given its treatment of women, the desecration of irreplaceable historical monuments, and the overall brutal, reactionary policies. But Washington did not view the Taliban itself as a security threat that warranted U.S. intervention—until the regime became an enabler to Al Qaeda.
In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. officials repeatedly stressed that defeating Al Qaeda—and, if possible, killing or capturing Bin Laden—was the primary objective. Overthrowing Omar’s government was not initially a stated goal. Washington did demand, however, that Kabul sever its ties with Al Qaeda and turn over Bin Laden and the other leaders to the United States. Only when Omar rejected those demands , did Washington pursue forcible regime change. Even then, U.S. leaders did not advocate a long-term war against that indigenous Afghan faction, however odious its social policies might be.
The United States did engage in military cooperation with the Northern Alliance, the principal armed faction opposing the government in Kabul, when Washington launched the invasion of Afghanistan. Tactically, the association with the Northern Alliance paid off. Alliance personnel provided most of the ground forces while the United States supported them with devastating air power. Their joint offensive ousted the Taliban in a matter of weeks.
The tactical cooperation, though, began to entangle America in the country’s complex ethnic and tribal politics. The Northern Alliance consisted primarily of fighters from the Tajik and Uzbek ethnic communities. Conversely, the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest single ethnic bloc dominated the Taliban.
Washington’s successful military operation led to the installation of Hamid Karzai, one of the minority of Pashtuns willing to collaborate with the Northern Alliance, as president. The Pentagon retained its emphasis on disrupting Al Qaeda and tracking down bin Laden and the other leaders. With greater cooperation from the government of Pakistan, the U.S.-led offensive might have succeeded in that task as well, but Islamabad allowed Taliban fighters to escape across the ill-defined border into Pakistan. Even then, had the Pentagon not begun to shift its focus to preparing for the invasion of Iraq, U.S. forces might still have succeeded in decapitating the Taliban leadership. Despite those annoying limitations, the U.S. military campaign badly weakened the terrorist organization.
During the years immediately following the 2001 invasion, American officials and the news media concentrated on Al Qaeda and the threat it posed. Mentions of the Taliban were far less frequent, and they usually seemed little more than an afterthought. That emphasis began to change in 2004 and 2005. Increasingly, official statements and media accounts portrayed the Taliban as America’s primary enemy in Afghanistan. References to Al Qaeda diminished to the point that some wags began to call the terrorist leader “ Osama bin Forgotten .” There was a good reason for that fading of attention. When pressed, U.S. officials and members of Congress , then and in subsequent years, conceded that there were no longer more than a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives remaining in Afghanistan. Most of what was left of the group was across the border in Pakistan. And, indeed, when U.S. forces finally located and killed bin Laden, he was in Pakistan, residing within a few hundred yards of a Pakistani military command center.
The 2004–05 period was the crucial point that the U.S. war in Afghanistan shifted from a counterterrorism campaign against Al Qaeda to a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban, combined with an ambitious nation-building venture to transform Afghanistan into a modern, democratic society. For the American people, that change amounted to a foreign-policy version of “ bait and switch .” And the change was certainly not beneficial. By the end of 2013, Washington had spent more than $116 billion in nonmilitary aid to Kabul—money that was mostly wasted on impractical projects or stolen by corrupt Afghan officials.