The arc of Afghanistan’s future from the Sept. 11 attacks to today ran from early hope to despair as the United States-led coalition that toppled the Taliban two decades ago left a void for the militants to reclaim the country as it withdrew U.S. troops.
On November 13, 2001, the sun had just begun to rise over the Hindu Kush Mountains when the Taliban disappeared from Kabul, the battered capital of Afghanistan.
The arrival of the U.S.-led coalition weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks ended a repressive, religiously radical regime that had more in common with the sixth century than the 21st.
The militants imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 until 2001, where girls were denied education. Women were confined to their homes or, when in public, inside the all-encompassing burqa. Men were told to wear beards. Television was banned, as was all music but religious chants.
America was still reeling from the horrific terrorist attacks of two months earlier, when planes flown by al-Qaida terrorists crashed into three iconic buildings and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people. The perpetrators and their leader, Osama bin Laden, were somewhere in Afghanistan, sheltered by the Taliban. The mission: Find him. Bring him to justice.
In those post-2001 months and years Kathy Gannon, the Associated Press News Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Afghans at the time believed in the power of the new foreigners could bring to their poor country.
“For them, it was probably the most hope they’ve ever had for their future after different changes of regimes, because every time one regime would leave, they’d always say maybe this would be better,” Gannon said.
“So there is a great deal of hope, I think, that greeted the arrival not of the Northern Alliance people who were allied with the US led coalition, but the US led coalition and the different world powers,” she added. “They thought that this was their chance at a better future.”
The war in Afghanistan lasted two decades, claimed more than 2,400 American lives, and cost the U.S. billions of dollars. Gannon said the U.S. strategy shifted over time and became confused, ranging from counter terrorism missions to nation-building and training Afghan Security Forces.
“I think a big thing for Afghanistan and its trajectory was also when the Iraq war, because that certainly the attention then was was drawn away and in Afghanistan was largely handed over to the Northern Alliance people to run in any way they saw fit, which then brought in that corruption. And it certainly fueled by the massive amounts of dollars that were brought in in those first few years,” said Gannon who has covered the region for more than three decades.
“It was a CIA-led operation. Hamid Karzai, the president at the time, admittedly said suitcases of money came in,” Gannon added. “So I think that was the beginning almost of the of the end in terms of that corruption and a lack of good governance, which I think really hurt the next 20 years of development.”
The running of the country was handed to Washington’s Afghan allies, many of whom had destroyed Kabul with their bitter feuding when they last ruled. Under their corruption, the country devolved into a collection of fiefdoms that enriched local warlords and led to the Taliban’s rise.
The Afghan military that would collapse in the wake of Taliban advances in 2021 began existence with its recruits often more loyal to a warlord than the army itself. Training was barely eight weeks for new, generally uneducated men. Building the Afghan army was often likened to repairing an aircraft midflight.
So across Afghanistan, quickly and understandably, it started: The defeated Taliban began to re-emerge. And it kept getting worse.
“I think there were a lot of opportunities and that were squandered and a lot of signs that were ignored that allowed governance to deteriorate… to the point that it did,” Gannon said. “Many people will say this wasn’t for the Taliban to win. It was for the Afghan government to lose successive governments to lose.”
The U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan just before the August 31 evacuation deadline, ending America’s longest war and closing a chapter in military history likely to be remembered for colossal failures, unfulfilled promises and a frantic final exit that cost the lives of more than 180 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
“Their desperation to leave in many ways is they have so much hope when all the international community came,” Gannon said. “And I think for a lot of people, they feel like if Afghanistan is in such a mess after 20 years with all these international people there, all this money and it still is a mess and maybe even worse than when they came in, then what hope is there for tomorrow? And I think that’s really sort of the the for me, the saddest legacy for Afghans and for the last 20 years.”