Retrospective: The 18-Year, And Counting, Afghan War Since peace talks fell apart, the U.S. and Taliban have ramped up violent activity. We examine the shifting currents of the war in Afghanistan — the longest in U.S. history.
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Retrospective: The 18-Year, And Counting, Afghan War

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Retrospective: The 18-Year, And Counting, Afghan War

Retrospective: The 18-Year, And Counting, Afghan War

Retrospective: The 18-Year, And Counting, Afghan War

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/762643473/762643474" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Since peace talks fell apart, the U.S. and Taliban have ramped up violent activity. We examine the shifting currents of the war in Afghanistan — the longest in U.S. history.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Just a couple weeks ago, it seemed the United States was close to a peace deal with Afghanistan. But now both the U.S. and the Taliban have ramped up violence after talks between those two parties fell apart. NPR's Tom Bowman has a look back at the war which started 18 years ago.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Shortly after the September 11 attacks, President George Bush stood on a pile of rubble in New York that was once the World Trade Center and vowed revenge.

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PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people...

(CHEERING)

BUSH: ...And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

BOWMAN: Defeating the Taliban didn't take all that long - a little more than two months. American leaders were feeling great about how things were going. Meanwhile, Afghan officials considered accepting a surrender deal from Taliban leaders. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly knocked that down. He called them terrorists just like al-Qaida. Rumsfeld sarcastically brushed aside talking with the Taliban and said they'd be swift justice for Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar.

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DONALD RUMSFELD: He has been the principal person who has been harboring the al-Qaida network in that country. He does not deserve the Medal of Freedom.

BOWMAN: Eighteen years later, the American stance seemed to come full circle. The U.S. held nine rounds of talks with Taliban leaders, some of whom spent time at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Retired Lieutenant General Dave Barno commanded U.S. forces in those early years. He talks about a successful Afghan election in 2004 that brought Hamid Karzai to power.

DAVID BARNO: We sensed a great deal of interest on the Taliban side to come in and talk, find ways to, you know, perhaps be part of this new government. The people of Afghanistan made a very clear choice on what kind of a government they wanted to have. And the Taliban on the outside of that.

BOWMAN: For years, Rumsfeld and others continue to dismiss even the idea of any talks with the Taliban.

BARNO: And I think we essentially missed an opportunity, during that era, to try and do what's happening right now, but with a much stronger position politically and militarily than we have today.

BOWMAN: So the fight went on. President Bush promised the U.S. would continue to hunt down the Taliban and begin a massive project to rebuild Afghanistan.

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BUSH: Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.

BOWMAN: He compared the rebuilding effort to the Marshall Plan that helped Europe rise from the ashes of World War II.

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BUSH: Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army and peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls which works.

BOWMAN: But the U.S. largely failed in that rebuilding effort, says Thomas Barfield, a Boston University professor with long experience in Afghanistan.

THOMAS BARFIELD: The United States and the Bush administration was keen on a light footprint, arguing that the Afghans didn't want to see any foreigners, that we didn't need to be there. But it was clear that they had no intention of doing nation building because they were keen to get to Iraq.

BOWMAN: And the Iraq invasion sapped not only money from Afghanistan but also troops, intelligence officials...

BARFIELD: And the amount of money being devoted to reconstruction declined. The political interest going on in Afghanistan was always secondary to Iraq.

BOWMAN: Barfield and others say progress in Afghanistan during those early years was all but lost. Strong institutions could have been built, reconciliation with the Taliban rank and file realized. The U.S. focused on the Taliban only after they started mounting serious attacks.

Thousands more U.S. troops were deployed, rising to 100,000. Tens of billions of dollars were also spent each year, oftentimes landing in the pockets of corrupt officials and warlords. And Barfield says President Karzai never had the support of the Afghan population.

BARFIELD: These local people had governance. They took care of themselves. What they disliked was the Karzai government and its cronies that were going to be put in charge. And they disliked the Taliban, too.

BOWMAN: The Taliban continued to expand in the countryside through fear, intimidation and sometimes outright support. And nearly every year, that fight fell to a new NATO or American military commander, a revolving door of generals. Each one often came with a new strategy or a new effort to train local Afghan forces. Retired Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland took part in that training effort.

SEAN MACFARLAND: If we'd known then what we know now about how long we would have been engaged in this country, we probably could have grown a generation of military and political and other types of leaders.

BOWMAN: But MacFarland acknowledges, even with more time, that effort might have failed too because a central problem was a lack of support for the Kabul government, something that has echoes with the U.S. training effort during the Vietnam War.

MACFARLAND: I mean, look at Vietnamization. I mean, that was a failed experiment too, right?

BOWMAN: As more U.S. troops poured in to handle the fighting, that increased foreign presence often grated on local sensibilities. Nine years ago, NPR accompanied Army Captain Brant Auge as he spoke with a village elder outside the southern city of Kandahar. The older said, through a translator, he wanted nothing to do with the American, only the Afghan soldier standing nearby.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is my brother - yeah? - also, I'm fighting with him. And also, he's fighting with me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Is Captain Auge your brother?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SAID GULL: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He said his religion is different - yeah? - and also, if he was in our religion, he is my brother.

BOWMAN: But that Afghan soldier, like his comrades, was never able to effectively push back the Taliban without strong U.S. assistance. Some Afghans fought bravely, many deserted. Eighteen years later, U.S. military officials still label the fight a stalemate.

KAEL WESTON: I think we're in a period now, for weeks if not months, were not a lot is going to happen and the Afghan people are going to pay, probably the biggest price of all.

BOWMAN: Kael Weston spent more than three years in Afghanistan with the State Department, working in remote areas with the U.S. military. His Afghan friends were worried about the possible Taliban peace deal unveiled by American negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, saying it would not guarantee the successes, the health and education improvements, the gains made by girls and women.

WESTON: And in their view, a rushed deal is a bad deal. So no deal is better than that.

BOWMAN: One email from an Afghan friend said Afghan should have peace sooner or later, but not at the cost of taking a U-turn and letting all the democratic gains go in vain. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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