Afghanistan, explained

A look at what just happened.
Isaac Saul Aug 16, 2021

Five weeks ago, when President Joe Biden announced that American troops would be fully withdrawing from Afghanistan, he said this to a worldwide audience: “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Today, the Taliban have taken over the Afghan capital, Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani has reportedly fled to Tajikistan, and the Taliban have seized control of the presidential palace, as well as nearly every major city across the country. American diplomats still in Afghanistan are destroying sensitive documents and rushing to the airport, hoping that the Taliban does not come across any materials they leave behind. Nearly every Western diplomatic mission in the country has been abandoned. At least five people were killed at the Kabul international airport, which is still being secured by U.S. forces, while fleeing from the Taliban.

In response, rather than withdraw troops, the U.S. has ramped up its presence from 2,500 to more than 5,000, in a last-ditch effort to evacuate as many Americans and Afghan allies as possible, many of whom are eligible for special U.S. visas (some 88,000 would qualify for having helped Americans over the last twenty years).

We have covered Afghanistan and the withdrawal three times now (Trump’s push to bring home troops; Biden’s announcement of withdrawal; the Taliban advancement across the country), with various perspectives from the right, left and from Afghanistan on the best way to proceed. But a slew of reader questions has made me realize that it might be helpful to simply explain what’s going on — a brief history of Afghanistan, how we got here, and what exactly we know is happening right now. It’s also clear to me this is the biggest story in the country right now, and while I know we’ve covered it a few times already, I think it’d be valuable to pursue it in depth today.

So in this newsletter, I’m going to attempt to bring you up to speed on what has happened and how we got here. This edition pulls from decades of news reports, Britannica’s historical record, intelligence reports made public over the years, research from previous newsletters, and the best information we can gather about what’s happening on the ground right now.

As always, and as I’m sure you know, encapsulating a twenty-year war in a single newsletter is impossible — so is recounting the entire history of a nation like Afghanistan. We’ve tried to thread together the most relevant parts in the most concise manner we could, but this is, of course, an incomplete retelling.

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A brief history.

About 38 million people live in Afghanistan. It sits between Central and South Asia, bordered by Pakistan, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Kabul, the capital city, has a population of 4.6 million people. Much of the country is either a mountainous region or harsh desert landscape. Historically speaking, Afghanistan is notorious because so many empires for thousands of years have tried and failed to conquer it. It is often called the “Graveyard of Empires” because of its resilience.

Screenshot: Google Maps

This constant barrage of attempts to conquer Afghanistan has left the nation itself deeply fragmented. Its multi-ethnicity has led to competing factions and a never-ending carousel of alliances and governments in control. We could begin this history as far back as Alexander the Great, but a better place to start is probably 1919.

That was immediately after the Third Anglo-Afghan War and the last time the country became free of foreign influence. For 50 years Afghanistan functioned as a monarchy until King Mohammed Zahir Shah was overthrown in a military coup in 1973. His replacement, Mohammed Daoud Khan, was then himself overthrown in 1978 in the Saur Revolution. This was a violent coup and the one that has been cited as the beginning of the more than 40 years of conflict between warring ethnic and political factions that followed. The government that rose out of the Saur Revolution pushed hard for both socialist reforms and women’s rights, but also used harsh measures to suppress any political opposition.

In the late 1970s, with rebellions against this government coalescing, the USSR entered Afghanistan to support the young socialist government and fight off insurgent groups. These rebellious fighters opposing the Soviet-backed government became known as the mujahideen, who used Islam to unify a national rebellion and won support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Foreign fighters joined the mujahideen, a network of whom you've probably heard: they became known as al-Qaeda. The Soviet forces struggled in the guerilla war against these fighters and eventually left in 1989. With the Soviets gone, the mujahideen took over to form a transitional government.

By 1994, though, that transitional government was itself fragmented, with many deep divisions centered around the interpretation of Islamic law. Armed conflict escalated, and in 1996 the Taliban emerged, seizing control of the capital city, Kabul, and instituting a strict version of Islamic law. Taliban rule prohibited women from being educated and became notorious for harsh punishments like severed hands or executions for petty crimes. Then, the leader of al-Qaeda — a man named Osama bin Laden — was brought to Afghanistan after being expelled from Sudan. He built up al-Qaeda’s headquarters there and, with the help of his foreign fighters, the Taliban took over 90 percent of Afghan territory by the summer of 2001, according to Britannica.


On September 9th of 2001, al-Qaeda forces killed one of the most prominent leaders of the mujahideen, Ahmad Shah Massoud, in northern Afghanistan. Two days later, four U.S. jetliners were hijacked, including the two that flew into the Twin Towers. The United States government immediately pinned the attack on al-Qaeda. The U.S. and British response was swift, and within weeks the plan was laid to first remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, then dismantle al-Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden. President George W. Bush famously demanded that the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar surrender leaders of al-Qaeda who were residing in Afghanistan. When he refused, the U.S. and its allies began an invasion.

By September 26, CIA operatives were on the ground in Afghanistan working with anti-Taliban Afghans trying to lay the groundwork to overthrow the regime. On October 7, an air campaign began. Given the history of Afghanistan, and the years the Soviets spent trying to wrangle the nation, U.S. officials at the time were acutely aware of the possibility they could be roped into a long war and hoped to avoid the same mistakes made by the thousands of years of leaders who came before them. By November, the Northern Alliance — Afghan forces that had retreated to the northern part of the country during Taliban rule — took back the capital city Kabul with help from U.S. and British soldiers. By December, they had retaken Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual home and the largest city in southern Afghanistan, a moment that is largely considered the end of Taliban rule.

With some quick victories and the Taliban retreating into rural Afghanistan and Pakistan, the early stages of the war in Afghanistan looked successful. With the Taliban out of power, the United Nations recognized Hamid Karzai as the new leader of the country. Karzai was a relatively unknown tribal leader before he joined with U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan to help fight back the Taliban.

The protracted war.

Depending on who you ask, the mistakes in Afghanistan may have started before the first air campaign even began (with the U.S. declining help from NATO allies and deciding instead to ostensibly go into Afghanistan alone). But some of the most critical errors — the ones often brought up first in the historical record — came early on in the war, when U.S. forces missed opportunities to take down al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders like bin Laden and Omar. The 2001 battle of Tora Bora, when Afghan and Pakistani forces who the U.S. believed to be allies may have helped bin Laden escape his cave complex during a siege, is the most notorious of these episodes. Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces resettled in Pakistan and along the border, and it would be another ten years before bin Laden was killed. This mistake also helped drag Australia, Canada, Germany and other nations into the fighting shortly after.

If bin Laden had been captured at Tora Bora, some believe the war in Afghanistan may have ended that year. In December of 2001, the Taliban’s spokesperson offered an unconditional surrender, but the U.S. rejected it. Instead, with bin Laden and Omar still on the loose, the U.S. began its efforts to nation-build in Afghanistan. And from the beginning, those efforts were a mess. Waste, fraud, and confusion plagued programs, and most of the billions of dollars invested went to military forces. At the same time, the Bush administration also decided to invade Iraq, which diverted military and intelligence resources from Afghanistan allowing the Taliban to regroup, and serving as a drain on the attention that could have been paid to rebuilding Afghanistan.

In 2003, some of those mistakes became historical embarrassments. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said major combat in Afghanistan was coming to an end on the same day President Bush gave his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech about the war in Iraq. Neither operation was close to over, though.

In 2004, Afghanistan held its first democratic elections, and 80 percent of registered voters came out. Karzai won a five-year term as president and shortly after dozens of women were elected to parliamentary seats in government, both of which were considered major diplomatic successes in the war. But the new government constitution that came with those elections is also considered by some to be one of the critical mistakes: it centralized the government in Kabul in a way “that ignored Afghan traditions of local autonomy and gave the president too much formal power,” Foreign Policy writer Stephen Walt said. With few competent civil servants, corruption became rampant, and the economy struggled. From the beginning, the new Afghan state was reliant on outside sources for funding and stability. Karzai was besieged by assassination attempts and the country’s ethnic divisions persisted in a political form.

By 2005, Taliban forces were regaining power and the U.S. was pouring many of its resources into the ill-fated war in Iraq. Then the Taliban moved from field combat in the first few years of the war, which had largely resulted in failure, to suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), both of which succeeded in causing heavy casualties and spreading fear across the country. “Between January 2005 and August 2006, Afghanistan endured 64 suicide attacks—a tactic that had been virtually unknown in the country’s history before then,” according to Britannica. Many of the victims were civilians and children.

These changes in the war — and their negative impacts — began to compound. With rampant violence, suicide bombings, corruption and a slow rebuild, anti-American sentiment grew. American military mistakes, like a vehicle crash that killed several Afghans, sparked protests. The use of drone strikes in attempts to kill leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda — many of which resulted in civilian deaths — drew international condemnation. All of this contributed to growing discontent — discontent that was leveraged by groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda across the region. Meanwhile, the opium industry exploded, and the Taliban used money from poppy cultivation and wealthy donors throughout the Persian Gulf to escalate its offensive.

By 2008, when Barack Obama was running for President, NATO had increased its presence in an attempt to scale back American involvement. The war was in bad enough shape that Obama campaigned on giving it more attention. As president, he sent an additional 17,000 troops in and then replaced Gen. David McKiernan with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He also ushered in a new strategy: rather than try to kill as many military combatants as possible, U.S. forces focused on defending civilians and attempting to build a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban forces.

In 2010, another 30,000 U.S. troops were sent in, marking the peak of our presence in Afghanistan (of about 100,000 troops). Obama’s troop surge soon became another oft-cited failure. It was both too small to accomplish its goals, but large enough to escalate the war. Soon after, casualties among Afghans and Americans rose, the drone strikes continued, and little was done to address the Taliban’s growing presence in Pakistan and along the border. In announcing the surge, Obama also made another mistake: announcing that the plan was temporary, designed for U.S. withdrawal, which effectively gave the Taliban the timeline they needed to hold out for.

From 2009 to 2012, the war was marked by ups and downs. Karzai was re-elected in 2009, but the election was called into question for corruption. Attempts were made by the Afghan government to form a peace deal with the Taliban, and at times the relationship with the U.S. was in such dire straits that Karzai threatened to simply join forces with the Taliban. Obama’s decision to replace generals was controversial, and the U.S. image was damaged significantly when WikiLeaks released a cache of documents detailing unreported civilian deaths and Pakistani aid to the Taliban. In 2011, Osama bin Laden was discovered hiding in Pakistan and killed by U.S. special forces. And in June of that year, Obama announced a timeline to withdraw troops by 2014, saying the U.S. had accomplished its goal.

In the years between that announcement and the official end of the combat mission in Afghanistan (which came in December of 2014), the relationship between the U.S. and Afghans deteriorated to new lows thanks in large part to several ugly, high-profile events involving the U.S. military. Via Britannica:

A series of incidents in early 2012 heightened tensions between the U.S. and the Afghan government and provoked public outrage. In mid-January, a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Afghans circulated in the media, drawing apologies from U.S. officials. Weeks later, Afghans rioted and held protests over reports that U.S. soldiers had disposed of copies of the Qurʾān at a military base by burning them. Then, on March 11, a U.S. soldier allegedly left an American base near Panjwai and broke into several homes, shooting dead 17 Afghans, mostly women and children. The incident provoked widespread demonstrations and a sharp condemnation from Karzai. Days later, the Taliban suspended participation in talks with the United States and the Afghan government.

In September of 2014, Ashraf Ghani was elected president. He immediately signed the Bilateral Security Agreement, which Karzai had refused to sign, and which authorized some 13,000 U.S. and international forces to remain in Afghanistan after the combat mission ended.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in 2014. Photo: DFID - UK Department for International Development

How Afghanistan changed

Despite the impression you may have formed by reading this far, it hasn’t been all bad in the years since the U.S. entered Afghanistan.

Jonathan Rauch made this case in Persuasion to great effect. The Brooking Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon estimates that while 400,000 Afghans died over 20 years in the war, the U.S. intervention may have saved a million lives based on previous conflicts and civil war. From Rauch:

Consider: Infant mortality dropped by half during the U.S. operation. Life expectancy improved by six years. Electricity consumption, a key quality of life indicator, increased by a factor of 10. Years in school increased by at least three years for men and four for women. University graduates rose from under 31,000 to almost 200,000. (Those and other indicators are available at the Brookings Afghanistan index.)

No American adversary was strengthened; to the contrary, ambitions of rivals like Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia were blocked. No allies were alienated; to the contrary, four dozen countries had joined the campaign by 2014, and 36 countries, from Albania to Ukraine, were still contributing forces as of February, according to NATO. If anything, the operation strengthened NATO and America’s alliances. “It was remarkable how much the NATO coalition held throughout this thing,” O’Hanlon said.

Over the course of the war, new schools, hospitals and public facilities were built. Women joined the workforce and girls attended school. Independent media outlets emerged that are still reporting on the ground today.

Now, it’s difficult to peg exactly what future the Afghan population wants, probably because the deep divisions in the country still remain. Public polling data is sparse and the political and ethnic divisions still make any kind of generalization a fraught exercise. But one obvious thing is true: they want peace.

A U.S. drafted peace plan has several provisions in it. It calls for maintaining democratic elections and a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It also leans into women’s rights and favors constitutional law over Islamic law. The Washington Post recently covered new survey evidence about how Afghans felt about these provisions and found they are strongly in support of peace — with women’s rights sticking out as one of the things Afghans cared most about. However, the survey also showed that the degree to which the Taliban controlled the government was not a make or break issue for many Afghans.

“We found Taliban majority control of the post-peace government had no effect (neither positive nor negative) on citizen support for the proposal, on average,” The Post reported. “This indifference holds for all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. This was a surprising finding to us: Even though the Taliban have claimed responsibility for a growing number of violent attacks, their inclusion in government is not a dealbreaker even among ethnic groups that have suffered a great deal.”

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What is happening now

Since the official end of combat in 2014, U.S. and NATO troops have been keeping a patchwork of stability together with a small troop presence in Afghanistan. Those troops have been training Afghan forces in an attempt to hand over the country to them upon U.S. withdrawal. A few weeks ago, there were about 2,500 U.S. troops and 7,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. About 94 troops have died since 2014 when the combat mission ended and the training mission began.

This summer, however, the Taliban have organized a sweeping push across the country to regain control. This comes as President Biden has targeted August 31 for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, something he hoped to memorialize on September 11, marking the 20th anniversary of the attack on the U.S. that helped prompt the war, with its belated conclusion.

But the Taliban’s takeover has happened faster than anyone expected — even outpacing the dire predictions of the harshest critics of Biden’s decision to withdraw the limited remaining troop presence. As the Taliban has moved from city to city, it has won battles and also made deals with Afghan forces to surrender their posts in exchange for safe passage home or payoffs. On Sunday morning, for instance, the Taliban took over the government-controlled city of Jalalabad without a single shot being fired.

As the Taliban began negotiating with Afghan officials for peaceful surrenders, activists, U.S. allies, journalists, and foreign diplomats have attempted to flee, including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Surrounding nations have begun attempts to evacuate their citizens. And the U.S. is scrambling to provide transportation and visas for thousands of Afghans who aided them during the war, who fear severe reprisal from the Taliban once the takeover is complete.

How the government fell so quickly will be a topic of much debate, but some experts have pointed to negotiations held in Doha, Qatar more than a year ago. That agreement, signed during the Trump administration, called for a full withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO forces, and was brokered by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo serving as a witness. It involved the Taliban cutting ties with al-Qaeda, a prisoner swap, lifting of sanctions against the Taliban, and said peace talks between the Taliban and Ghani’s government would follow — but Ghani and the Afghan government were somehow left out of these negotiations.

The deal also called for a ceasefire and violence reduction, but did not include any clear mechanisms to enforce that provision. Still, in the wake of the deal, the Taliban largely stopped its attacks on U.S. troops and suicide bombings in Afghan cities. But when peace talks were supposed to move forward, the Afghan government refused, bringing forward evidence the Taliban had assassinated “government officials and security force members, civil society advocates, journalists and human rights workers — including several women shot in broad daylight,” according to The New York Times.

Today, many U.S. and Afghan forces say the deal felt like it would guarantee the government’s defeat at the hands of the Taliban, and the instinct for self-preservation simply took over. “They saw that document as the end,” an Afghan special forces officer told The Washington Post. “The day the deal was signed we saw the change. Everyone was just looking out for himself. It was like [the United States] left us to fail.”

With the Afghan military still fighting corruption, and some who say they haven’t received salaries in months, the Taliban was able to move quickly against their demoralized forces. Many believed the Afghan soldiers had the superior technology and manpower to keep the Taliban at bay, but U.S. officials have said privately that Afghan forces appeared psychologically defeated and unwilling to continue to risk their lives for an uncertain future.

The result, in a word, has been disastrous. Today, surreal footage from an airport in Kabul showed Afghan civilians running alongside a U.S. military plane and attempting to hang onto it to escape. There are reports that some fell from the plane after takeoff and died.

Meanwhile, soldiers have fled into neighboring Uzbekistan to seek refuge and medical care. The German military is attempting to evacuate as many as 10,000 people. Members of the U.S. embassy are destroying sensitive material and planning to abandon their posts, though 500 U.S. soldiers are still at the embassy attempting to secure it. Five people were reportedly killed in the chaos at the Kabul airport.

Now what?

Afghanistan is now in the hands of the Taliban. It’s not a shocking development, but it did happen with startling speed. With forces in Kabul and Ghani in exile, it’s clear the Taliban is in control. The question now is what will they do?

In The Washington Post, Kevin Sieff recapped what Afghanistan looked like between 1996 and 2001, the last time the Taliban had control:

The Taliban dispatched squads of “morality police” from an agency known as the Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice. Men were forced to grow beards. Women were forced to wear burqas, flowing garments that cover the entire face and body. Schools for girls were shuttered. Women who were unaccompanied in public places could be beaten. Soccer was banned. So was music, aside from religious chants. The Taliban government held public executions in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium.

The outside world got periodic glimpses into the country (even though taking photos was technically forbidden): There was the video of an Afghan mother forced to kneel in the stadium, shot dead between the goal posts. There were photos of children dying of preventable illnesses in a dilapidated pediatric hospital. Images of the ancient Buddhist statues pulverized by the Taliban because its leaders considered the stone images to be idolatrous. The sea of refugees and displaced people living in makeshift tents across the region…

And yet the regime made sporadic attempts to gain international legitimacy. It tried to send a diplomat to the U.N. General Assembly. In October 1996, Taliban leader Mohammad Omar sent a letter to U.S. representatives claiming that “the Taliban think highly of the U.S., appreciate U.S. help during the jihad against the Soviets, and want good relations with the U.S.”

However, there is a smattering of optimism: some Taliban leaders have said they will abandon their harsh rule of the 1990s. Terrorism experts say the Taliban’s exodus has, in some cases, broadened their horizons and allowed the group to become more influenced by outside and international ways. Spokespersons for the Taliban have said that its fighters have been ordered not to enter the homes of citizens without permission and claim the new Taliban government wants peaceful relations with other countries. Tolo News, the largest private news channel in the country, said Taliban fighters had been “polite” and came to their compound to register any weapons there, while also making a pledge to protect it.

But many Afghan women and civil rights leaders are skeptical this rule will look any different than the one in the late 1990s. Reports are already emerging from cities the Taliban has recaptured of women being murdered solely for their choice of clothing.

Nearly all of the likely scenarios of how this plays out are frightening — with political instability, a Taliban crackdown on dissidents and civilian casualties looking increasingly likely. Reports of the Taliban combing Kabul for anyone who collaborated with the West are also coming out. The thousands of U.S. allies, interpreters and civil rights activists being left behind are likely to face torture and execution, and evacuating those allies is now the United States’ number one priority. But the stories from those allies are already heartbreaking, with many saying the U.S. government has failed to organize their extraction and that it’s already too late.

As for peace negotiations, nobody seems sure of where things will go. With Ghani in exile there is very little in the way of an Afghan government to negotiate with, and it’s unclear if the Taliban is even interested. For now, the Biden administration is trying to get a grip on the chaotic, frantic scene in Kabul and extract as many people as it can. The Afghans who remain are left waiting to see what kind of government will emerge.

Quick hits

  1. Hospitals in Haiti are struggling to treat thousands of citizens who were injured in a 7.2 magnitude earthquake on Saturday. (Read the story)
  2. A federal judge ordered the Biden administration to reinstate Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy that sends Central American asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court cases. (The details)
  3. More than 100 wildfires continue to burn across a dozen states in the West, with more than 21,000 federal firefighters on the ground trying to contain the flames. (The story)
  4. The USDA announced that it will make a permanent increase to the level of food stamp assistance available to needy families — the largest increase in the program’s history. (Link)
  5. U.S. safety regulators have opened a formal probe into autopilot issues with 765,000 Tesla vehicles. (Get more)


Today’s issue of Tangle is a special edition, deep dive on Afghanistan. If you enjoyed it, or found it helpful, please share it on social media or forward it to friends. If you’ve been enjoying Tangle for free but would like to support this work, please consider becoming a subscriber:

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Have a nice day.

A 15-year-old from Sri Lanka spent the Covid-19 lockdown building a solar-powered tuk-tuk, the popular tricycle taxi favored in his country. Suntharalingam Piranawan used scraps to build his vehicle, and said it took him eight months to construct it. It wasn’t Piranawan’s first rodeo, either: he said he’s also built solar-powered foot cycles, coconut picking machines and coconut scrapers in the past. Now, though, the teenager is getting global recognition after the BBC did a video on his latest invention. (BBC News)


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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