Did 19 men with Stanley knives defeat the best-armed and most powerful army in the world?

No, of course not, but they did set in train a chain of bloody and tragic events which, coupled with disastrous political decisions, led to the violent deaths of tens of thousands of people and, after two decades, to the United States’ humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Neither Osama bin Laden, who ordered it, or the al-Qaeda terrorists who carried it out, could have hoped for the amount of blood and treasure expended. Almost 2,500 US military killed, 454 British soldiers dead, 66,000 Afghan troops and police, more than 50,000 civilians as the best guesstimate, then there are the 4,000 or more contractors, aid workers and journalists. All at a cost of more than $2 trillion to the US treasury and around £10 billion to ours.

It was President George W Bush who launched the “war on terror” in the smoking ruins of the Twin Towers on 9/11 in 2001, vowing to seek out and destroy the organisers hiding in the Tora Bora mountains, which, as these things do, morphed into the assault against the Taliban and the 20-year war.

But by the early months of 2002, the war was won, al-Qaeda had relocated to Pakistan, the Taliban were overthrown and the BBC’s John Simpson, having led the liberation of Kabul the previous November, was back home working on a book.

Despite the absence of terrorists, the “war on terror” continued because the slogan sold well at home about America’s strength, can-do sprit and how it saw its importance in the world.

Many living in the more impoverished parts of Afghanistan, like Opium Central in Helmand, where the majority of British soldiers died, were glad to see the back of the abuses they suffered from the Taliban under the guise of Sharia law. They were looking forward to democratic elections after the US intervention and, most importantly, economic aid.

Taliban slaughter

The Taliban had come about as a reaction to the violence and banditry of the bloodthirsty warlords who ruled rural the provinces. Men like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who, as a mujahideen commander during the civil war in the 1990s, turned his guns on Kabul, slaughtering many thousands of Afghans, with his militias raping and maiming thousands more.

While the White House paid lip service to the importance of good governance in Afghanistan, the reality was that co-opting violent warlords on the “my enemy’s enemy principle”, as they did, normalising corruption, as they did, inevitably resulted in further instability. And the return of the Taliban.

In Anand Gopal’s brilliant and coruscating book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War through Afghan Eyes, he describes how pesky non-political or even anti-Taliban farmers, fingered by the warlords, were taken away, tortured, and locked away in Bagram air base or flown to Guantanamo. Through numerous examples, Gopal tells how, in just one area, for example, “US forces assaulted the school and the governor’s house in January 2002, wiping out most of the district’s pro-US leadership in a single night”.

Barack Obama succeeded Bush and was inaugurated as US President in January 2009 with, among other promises he broke, stopping the war and a commitment to close down Guantanamo. Much of the failure that followed can be loaded on him.

He authorised a massive troop surge in 2011, which his then vice-president Joe Biden opposed, seeing a peak of 110,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, before making another promise to end the war. On December 28, 2014, US and Natoo officials held a ceremony at their headquarters in Kabul to mark the occasion. A four-star general gave a speech and solemnly furled the green flag of the US-led international force that had flown since the beginning of the conflict.

Obama declared it a milestone for the US and that the country was safer and more secure after 13 years of war. This in a statement from 8,000 miles away in Hawaii where he was holidaying.

Obama’s lies

AT the time, there were 10,800 US troops in the country and Obama then hoodwinked, or lied to, the American public. Remaining forces would have non-combat roles, as advisers and trainers of Afghan troops, he promised. But there were several exceptions. Drones, fighters and bombers continued to carry out missions. Another combat exception was troops carrying out “counterterrorism operations,” or raids on specific targets, including capturing or killing members of al-Qaeda and “associated forces,” which in practice could apply to the Taliban or just about anybody.

To keep up the fiction, Pentagon officials, as in Vietnam before, continued to send bullish messages to the home audience about successes at the front. The truth was rather different as, from April 2015, US bodies again began to be shipped back home. In September, the Taliban seized the country’s sixth-largest city, Kunduz.

In taking it back a US Air Force AC-130 gunship repeatedly strafed with cannon fire a Kunduz hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières, killing 42 people. The hospital had previously provided US and Afghan forces with its GPS co-ordinates.

US atrocities

THE US relied more and more on “night raids”, carried out by American-organised Afghan assault units, effectively death squads. The more the raids and atrocities, the more bombs, drones and missile strikes, the more young men becoming Taliban fighters.

The war widened in early 2016 as Islamic State took a foothold, reckoned by the Pentagon to have between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in Afghanistan. US rules of engagement were emended to include attacks on them and and the number of drone and air strikes multiplied.

By then, the US military finally admitted that the original target, al-Qaeda, had fled the country for Pakistan.

The Taliban had now seized, once more, Kunduz and the opium fields in Helmand which the British had pulled out from in 2014. Instead of a drawdown of troops, Obama ordered more to stay and when he left the White House in 2017, around 8,500 remained.

Trump’s deal

IN February 2020, Obama’s successor Donald Trump signed a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban to remove all forces and contractors in 14 months. He forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters and relax economic sanctions.

He also tacitly agreed that the Taliban could continue their campaign and all they had to say was that they would stop targeting US troops and not permit al-Qaeda or other terrorist organisations to use Afghanistan to threaten US security.

The agreement had no inspection or enforcement mechanisms, despite Trump’s claim that “if bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no-one’s ever seen”. They did and they didn’t.

The May deadline was not met, but Biden, in a grandstanding speech in April, promised to be out by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – yesterday – while the Taliban were eating up the country. And he made up time and beat his deadline with the last US military boot leaving Kabul airport on August 30. The Taliban may not have waved, but they did shoot volleys of AK-47 into the night air.

This was not about nation-building or women’s rights – the Soviets in their occupation had tried that, often at gunpoint. It was not about heavily-armed Afghan soldiers fleeing out of cowardice. It was always about American domestic political interests, as all their wars since 1945 have been. And, in the end, that self-interest led to betrayal and the withdrawal. History will not absolve.