The United States on Saturday agreed to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan within 14 months. This is contingent upon the Taliban abiding by an agreement that was signed in Doha on Saturday.
But this raises the question of why the US is fighting a war in Afghanistan in the first place and about who the Taliban are.
Why are the the two factions fighting?
Nearly twenty years ago, in September 2001, an Islamist terror organisation, the al-Qaeda, became the prime suspect for an attack in America that killed nearly 3,000 people. Headed by Osama Bin Laden, the group and its chief however were sheltered by the Talibans who refused to hand them over to the Americans citing a lack of evidence.
The US, then led by President George Bush, launched air strikes against Afghanistan in retaliation a month later. Operation Enduring Freedom was announced on October 7, 2001 and saw strikes using land-based bombers, carrier-based fighters as well as attacks using ships and submarines.
What had been the impact of the war?
Since 2001, when the US forces made their way to Afghanistan, over 2,300 US force members have died, with around 20,660 soldiers injured. Even greater perhaps, is the loss of lives among Afghan troops and civillians as well as among Taliban fighters.
Over the years billions of dollars have been poured into the war against terrorism. According to a BBC article, the US spent nearly a hundred billion dollars a year between 2010 and 2012 in fighting the Taliban.
The report quotes government figures to add that from 2016 to 2018 the annual expenditure hovered around $ 40 billion while expenses till September 2019 was around $ 38 billion. This adds up to a total expenditure of around 778 billion dollars, alongside funds spent on reconstruction projects. Independent studies however opine that the number is much higher. Keep in mind that this does not include the money spent on maintaining US bases in Pakistan.
Not just in terms of numbers, the war has also had a cultural impact. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe began in Afghanistan with Iron Man — that’s the cultural mind-space the US Invasion of Afghanistan now occupies.
For the uninitiated, Iron Man, otherwise known as Tony Stark was injured by a booby trap and captured by enemy forces. The place where he was injured however has been updated over time. Beginning with the Vietnam War in the original story, it was changed to the first Gulf War in the ’90s and updated in the 2000s to the Afghan War.
Is Operation Enduring Freedom an ongoing operation?
The answer is both yes and no. Operation Enduring Freedom ceased to exist in December 2014, during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
It was however replaced by Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. While troops remain in Afghanistan, the new Operation focused on NATO-led training and assistance.
How has the Taliban remained strong?
The Taliban emerged in the early ’90s along the border regions of north Pakistan and south-west Afghanistan. They presented themselves as the harbinger of peace and promised to fight corruption in an area that had been torn apart by Civil War.
But what has helped the Taliban stay powerful till date? There are many reasons for this, the first being the resources available to the group. According to a late 2018 article by the BBC, the Taliban could be earning as much as $1.5 billion per year in recent years. The article estimates that the group’s annual revenue from 2011 onwards was around $ 400 million.
So, where does the money come from? Many Taliban-held areas produce opium poppies that can then be used for making heroin. Additionally they made money from taxing people at various stages of the cultivation and heroin creation process. They also tax people travelling through their territory as well as businesses.
Financial stability aside, the Taliban has managed to remain strong owing to the unwillingness of other nations to keep their troops for extended periods of time in Afghanistan as well as the limitations of the country’s forces and government.
What does this US-Taliban deal mean?
The agreement is expected to lead to a dialogue between the Taliban and the Kabul government. If all goes well, there will soon be a phased removal of US troops from the country.
For President Trump, it would be quite the coup if American troops return to the US ahead of the 2020 elections.
The Taliban for their part say that they will release a thousand Afghan prisoners when the deal is signed. In exchange the government is expected to release 5,000 fighters belonging to the group.
A secondary problem however is the political rivalry between President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah who remain at at loggerheads over election results. Many opine that the duo’s ability to present an united front would have a significant impact.
It now remains to be seen how the deal is enacted.