In two hours during the morning of September 11, 2001, 2,981 people were murdered when 19 hijackers crashed four airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and a field in Pennsylvania. The attack was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda, and it cost about half a million US dollars to execute.
Within a month, the United States led an international military coalition into Afghanistan where the Taliban government was harbouring Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.
Thus began our war in Afghanistan. It lasted nineteen years and eleven months, and it became both America and Canada’s longest war.
According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, by April 2021, the war had cost America USD$2.261 trillion, and killed 2,448 American troops and Department of Defence civilians, 1,144 non-US coalition troops, and 3,936 US contractors.
Canada fought in the coalition from 2001 to 2011, but pivoted to military training from 2011 to 2014. One hundred and fifty-nine Canadian troops and seven civilians were killed and some CDN$18 billion was spent from 2001 to 2014. In 2014 Canada pivoted again, this time to development assistance to support the US-NATO coalition-backed Afghan government. Just nine months ago, Canada pledged CDN$270 million in Afghan development assistance for 2021-2024.
The negative effects on Afghans cannot be overestimated, not least because they had already suffered brutal conflict from 1979 to 2001, a review of which provides crucial orientation to the last twenty years.
In the devastating war of Soviet occupation (1979-1989), the last major hot conflict of the Cold War, the US backed Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviets while millions of Afghans fled the country. Many settled in the largely ungoverned northern border region of neighbouring Pakistan, which is geographically and culturally akin to southern Afghanistan. The trans-border region is the traditional homeland of the Pashtuns—the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. It was bisected by an unenforceable border imposed by imperial Britain when it fought three unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan more than a century ago to protect British India.
When the Soviets finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the resistance fighters, who were rooted in various ethnic groups and regions of Afghanistan, developed into warlord-led militias that fought each other for control of the country in the ruthless post-Soviet civil war (1989-1996).
The Taliban emerged from the refugee settlements in Pakistan. In general, Pakistan tolerated the Taliban and often supported the movement in order to maintain proxy forces on its northern border as a disincentive to threats of encirclement by its major rival India. Supported by Pakistan, rooted locally, and largely indifferent to the outside and modern worlds, the Taliban pushed back the warlords, and established an Afghanistan disciplined by its severe and parochial version of Islam (1996-2001).
Al-Qaeda had its origins in the Soviet war, becoming a revolutionary Islamic group with global goals. Being proficient in modern finance and media, Al-Qaeda came to be an unlikely but useful ally to the anti-modern, unworldly Taliban in its fight for Afghanistan.
After Al-Qaeda executed the 9/11 attacks, the US reconnected with the remnants of the largely defeated warlords, and, with their support, deployed to Afghanistan in October 2001. The coalition drove the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan by late November 2001.
It is worth noting that the Taliban ruled Afghanistan without a serious in-country rival (until it was driven out by the overwhelming power of the US-led coalition)—something the British, Soviets and US-led coalition were unable to do. As foreign as the Taliban is to the West, it is significantly less foreign to many in the overwhelmingly rural and deeply conservative Afghan population. And although many Afghans fear the Taliban’s ultra-conservatism, just as many are loathe to support corrupt puppet governments installed at the point of foreign guns.
As one might expect, after November 2001 the Taliban regrouped in Pakistan. Then they began returning to Afghanistan in ever greater numbers. It was an open, though diplomatically touchy, secret that the war had spread to Pakistan. Most controversial was the US drone war in Pakistan.
The coalition eventually surged troop numbers up to 150,000 by 2011, but without success. Thereafter, the coalition downsized the combat mission, and shifted to training an Afghan security force of 350,000 to defend the coalition-backed government against the Taliban. However, the security forces were thoroughly riddled with corruption and incompetence, with many stories of units being predatory towards civilians. Afghans signed up for as many paychecks and graft opportunities as possible as long as the foreigners were pouring money into the country—something that became abundantly clear during the last few weeks when the Afghan security forces melted away in the face of the Taliban offensive.
For some 25 years, members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fought and lived together, developing deep ties, even intermarrying. In the end, the Taliban could not be beaten, and Al-Qaeda remains in Afghanistan.
According to the Costs of War Project, compared to the 2,981 lives lost on 9/11, in the response about two-and-a-half times as many American and coalition soldiers and contractors died (7,528). About twenty-four times as many Afghan and Pakistani civilians (71,254), and about twenty-six times as many (pro-coalition) Afghan and Pakistani security forces (76,814) were killed. In total, about 240,000 lives were lost in the response, including 84,191 opposition fighters. And the war failed.
In December 2001, there were great hopes for a liberated Afghanistan. However, a couple years ago, the Washington Post published secret files revealing that although leading officials admitted in confidence that the war had been going badly since its early years, they told very different stories in public, resulting in nearly two decades of dissemblance, destructive churn, and death.
The Taliban is oppressive, and much worse than the governments we supported after 2001, but the latter, which included warlords the US reconnected with in October 2001, were deeply corrupt, failing to improve anything outside their own pockets. Afghanistan continues to rank in the very bottom category of the United Nations Human Development Index, which measures national well-being. In the most recent UN HDI report, Afghanistan ranks 169th out of 189 countries with a score of 51.1 percent, whereas Canada ranks 16th with a score of 92.9 percent. Norway ranks first with 95.7 percent.
Presidents Trump and Biden decided to withdraw US forces this year. The shame of failing to win the war against a far inferior force before the twenty-year anniversary of 9/11 was likely a factor. As US forces evacuated this summer, the Taliban began taking district centres, then provincial capitals. Now they have taken Kabul, in effect, taking Afghanistan back to 1996.
Nearly a quarter million dead, trillions of dollars spent that failed to lift the Afghan people out of the bottom human development category on earth, and the Taliban (with its Al-Qaeda allies) back in control of the country—our war in their country has been a disaster.
John Duncan is director of the Ethics, Society and Law program at Trinity College, and academic director of the Ideas for the World program at Victoria College, in the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @John__Duncan.