A2 History (Unit 3) IR 1945-2004 (21) b Afghanistan: Superpower response to international aggression

source: BBC History

Youtube documentary: BBC Afghan War documentary

The war in Afghanistan (Overview)

 On 11 September 2001 terrorists hijacked four aeroplanes in the United States. Two were deliberately flown into each of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, with another hitting the Pentagon in Virginia. The fourth aeroplane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

The total loss of life on 9/11 was nearly 3,000. The 19 hijackers were members of al-Qaeda, the global Islamist network founded and led by Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden, now living in Afghanistan.

The US puts pressure on the Taliban

The Taliban, the ruling power in Afghanistan, were accused by the US of protecting Bin Laden. Taliban requests for negotiations with the US were rejected in favour of military action, and on 7 October 2001 the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan.

The aim of Operation Enduring Freedom was to find Osama Bin Laden, remove the Taliban from power, and prevent the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist haven. The US was supported by a broad coalition of international forces including the Afghan Northern Alliance, United Kingdom and Canada.

The Taliban fall from power

Kabul fell to coalition forces on 13 October 2001. In early December fierce fighting took place near the Tora Bora caves, where Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden were believed to be. Both men evaded capture and went into hiding.

Kandahar, the last major Taliban stronghold, fell on 7 December 2001, marking the end of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. They were excluded from the Bonn Agreement that formed a draft constitution for Afghanistan, and in 2004 Hamid Karzai was elected the country’s president.

Beaten but unbowed, in 2002 the Taliban began a lengthy period of insurgency in an attempt to re-establish their power base. Meanwhile, international attention turned to Iraq, which US-led coalition forces invaded in 2003.

Control of operations switched to Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2006. However, US troop numbers continued to grow throughout the decade in an attempt to contain the Taliban.

Trigger – The 9/11 terrorist attacks

 On the morning of 11 September 2001, 19 hijackers took control of four commercial passenger jets flying out of airports on the east coast of the United States.

Two of the aircraft were deliberately flown into the main two towers (the Twin Towers) of the World Trade Center in New York, with a third hitting the Pentagon in Virginia.

The fourth plane never reached its intended target, crashing in Pennsylvania. It is believed that the passengers and crew overpowered the hijackers and took control of the plane.

Symbolic attacks

The Twin Towers were widely considered to be symbols of America’s power and influence. The Pentagon is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense.

Both 110-floor World Trade Center towers subsequently collapsed and substantial damage was caused to one wing of the Pentagon. Numerous other buildings at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan were destroyed or badly damaged.

The total loss of life on 9/11 was nearly 3,000, including the 19 hijackers. It was the worst loss of life due to a terrorist incident on US soil.

The days that followed saw a significant effect on world economic markets and international confidence.

Suspicion falls on al-Qaeda

Suspicion soon fell on the radical Sunni Islamist group, al-Qaeda (‘The Base’ in Arabic) founded in 1988 and led by Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden.

There was good reason for this. Although difficult to confirm, it is thought al-Qaeda’s involvement in world terrorism can be traced back to 1993, with the first World Trade Center bombing.

Over the next 8 years, al-Qaeda were implicated in a series of major attacks on US forces: the shooting down of two American Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia in October 1993, the killing of 19 Americans in a bombing at a military housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the bombing of US embassies in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, with the loss of 223 lives, and the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 servicemen and wounded 39.

In 1996 Bin Laden called for his followers to “launch a guerrilla war against American forces and expel the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula

Soon after the 1998 embassy bombings, The Federal Bureau of Investigation placed Bin Laden on their Ten Most Wanted list, offering a reward of $25million for his capture.

A new kind of enemy

On the night of 11 September, with al-Qaeda widely believed to have conducted the attacks, President George W Bush described the events of that day as “evil, despicable acts of terror” and said the US was “at war with a new and different kind of enemy“. The attack was denounced by governments worldwide.

In October 2001, attacks were launched on Afghanistan by western coalition forces in conjunction with the anti-Taliban Afghan Northern Alliance

Stage 1 – The US refuses to negotiate with the Taliban

 In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US government swiftly identifiedOsama Bin Laden as their prime suspect. The leader of the Islamist terror group al-Qaeda initially denied involvement in 9/11, and did not claim responsibility until October 2004.

Bin Laden was closely allied to the Taliban, the ruling power in Afghanistan. The Taliban publicly condemned the attacks, but admitted that the fugitive al-Qaeda leader was living in Afghanistan. They called for restraint, and demanded evidence from the US regarding Bin Laden’s alleged involvement.

Addressing clerics in Kabul on 19 September 2001, the Taliban’s leader Mullah Mohammed Omar argued that the US was using Bin Laden’s involvement in 9/11 as a pretext for removing the Taliban from power, and signalled that the Taliban were ready for talks.

The US government swiftly rejected Mullah Omar’s offer. “The president’s message to the Taliban is very simple,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “It’s time for action, not negotiations.”

US president George W Bush was strongly supported by the British prime minister Tony Blair, who stated: “We …here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy“.

Five point ultimatum

On 20 September 2001, President Bush spoke before a Joint Session of Congress declaring a “War on Terrorism” and asked “Who attacked our country? The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al-Qaeda… This group and its leader – a person named Osama Bin Laden – are linked to many other organizations in different countries“.

The speech contained a five-point ultimatum for the Taliban:

1. Deliver to the US all al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan

2. Release all imprisoned foreign nationals

3. Protect foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers

4. Close immediately every terrorist training camp, and hand over every terrorist and their supporters

5. Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps for inspection

“No timetable for the Taliban”

On 2 October 2001, US President George W Bush again rejected a Taliban appeal for discussions. “There is no timetable for the Taliban, just like there are no negotiations,” he said. His position was confirmed by Fleischer: “There will be no discussions and no negotiations. So what they say is not as important as what they do. And it’s time for them to act.”

On 7 October the first air strikes began. One week into the military campaign the Taliban made a further failed plea for negotiations. Afghanistan’s deputy prime minister Maulvi Abdul Kabir told reporters in Jalalabad that the Taliban would hand over Bin Laden if the US stopped bombing Afghanistan.

Bush and Blair stand firm

The US remained resolute in its refusal to negotiate. Bush told reporters on the White House lawn: “This is non-negotiable. There is no need to discuss innocence or guilt; we know he’s guilty. Turn him over. If they want us to stop our military operations they’ve just got to meet my conditions.”

On 6 November, the British prime minister Tony Blair, speaking on CNN’s Larry King Live, backed up Bush’s position: “The Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda network have virtually merged now. Their forces are the same, probably their military structures are virtually the same. So there’s no negotiating with them.”

Stage 2 – The Taliban are forced out of Afghanistan

In the days after the 9/11 attacks, the US issued an ultimatum to Afghanistan’s rulers, the Taliban. The Taliban did not offer to meet American demands, but instead proposed talks, in an attempt to avoid military conflict.

On 28 September 2001, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1373 reaffirmed the UNSC’s condemnation of the terrorist attacks and confirmed that such acts constituted a threat to international peace and security.

However, while deploring the attacks, the UNSC did not authorise a military campaign.

Operation Enduring Freedom

On 7 October, as part of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, US-led coalition forces began a massive aerial bombardment of key Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, justified as ‘collective self-defence’ under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Ground forces drawn from the Afghan Northern Alliance fought alongside special forces from the US, UK, Australia, Norway, Canada, New Zealand and Germany.

On 13 November, Kabul was the first city captured by the Northern Alliance. Herat and Jalalabad were surrendered soon after.

Kunduz, the last northern city held by the Taliban, fell to coalition forces on 26 November, following a siege.

In early December, fierce fighting occurred near the Tora Bora caves, in Eastern Afghanistan, where Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden were believed to be hiding. The US failed to capture either men, and both were thought to have fled across the border to Pakistan.

The campaign draws to a close

As the campaign to remove the Taliban drew to a close, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said “…the final collapse of the Taliban is now upon us … a total vindication of the strategy we have worked out from the beginning “.

Kandahar, the Taliban capital fell on 7 December 2001. Hamid Karzai, soon to be appointed Acting President of Afghanistan, said “Taliban rule is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan.”

The fall of Kandahar was closely followed on 9 December by that of Zabul Province, the last remaining Taliban presence in Afghanistan.

In early December, the Bonn Agreement requested the development of a security force to maintain security in key areas of Afghanistan.

On 20 December, the United Nations Security Council authorised the formation of NATO-ISAF(International Security Assistance Force), who are still in Afghanistan this day.

Stage 3 – The Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan

 The Taliban were driven from Kandahar by coalition forces on 7 December 2001. Despite losing formal control of Afghanistan, however, pockets of Taliban resistance continued to fight against Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in a bid to recapture land and influence.

The Taliban resurgence began in 2002. A recruitment drive took place in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, with small training camps set up along the mountainous border where new recruits were trained in guerrilla tactics.

The insurgency was supported by various tribal groups, and gained momentum after ISAF air strikes led to civilian deaths and a ban on poppy cultivation destroyed many rural livelihoods.

Operation Anaconda

In March 2002, ISAF troops and pro-government Afghan militia joined together for Operation Anaconda. It was the first major battle in Afghanistan since the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, and the first to involve regular US army troops since the invasion began.

The operation was aimed at destroying Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the Shahi-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains in the east of Afghanistan. Despite meeting initial resistance, the operation was a success. Estimates of enemy fighters killed by coalition troops varied from 100 to 1,000, with many more fleeing from the area.

Coalition troop numbers rise

In April 2002 there were 7,000 US soldiers and airmen in Afghanistan. UK forces were concentrated in Kabul, with 1,700 soldiers working alongside other allied units.

Meanwhile, the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan (TISA) was established, and a new constitution was adopted in December 2003. Elections were held in October the following year, which established acting president Hamid Karzai as the elected president of Afghanistan.

Although the war in Iraq meant there were fewer US Special Operations forces in Afghanistan by 2004,conventional US troop numbers grew to over 16,000 by the end of the year as the Taliban insurgency gained momentum.

New terror tactics

Realising that Western politicians were focusing more on Iraq than Afghanistan, the Taliban seized the opportunity to reassert themselves. With Taliban leader Mullah Omar in hiding, the insurgency was directed by the Quetta Shura, a Pakistan-based militant organisation which included the Taliban’s top leadership.

Taliban militants began to adopt the terror tactics of Iraqi insurgents. Before 2004 suicide bombings were a rarity in Afghanistan, but six attacks were launched that year by the Taliban. In 2005 there were 21, and in 2006 there were 141 suicide attacks, causing 1,166 casualties.

In September 2004, a rocket was fired at a helicopter carrying President Karzai. Although it missed its target, it was the most serious attempt on Karzai’s life since September 2002.

The Taliban’s use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) also increased in this time. The IEDs had proved highly effective to Iraqi insurgents, and in Afghanistan there were 530 IED bombings in 2005 and 1,297 in 2006.

Fresh attempts to contain the Taliban

The ISAF Operation Mountain Thrust took place between May and July 2006. Its primary aim was to crush the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan, and led to the bloodiest period of fighting since their fall from power in 2001.

The operation was led by Afghan and Canadian forces, and involved 3,300 British and 2,300 US troops. More than 1000 Taliban fighters were killed and nearly 400 were captured, while 150 ISAF soldiers lost their lives.

Ultimately, however, the operation was largely unsuccessful. Taliban attacks continued to intensify after Nato assumed responsibility for security across Afghanistan. “The Taliban fighters reservoir is practically limitless,” the United Nation envoy Tom Koenigs told the German newspaper Der Spiegel. “The movement will not be overcome by high casualty figures.”


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