The Story Behind the War in Afghanistan

Nick Reed, Scarlet Staff

In 1975, the world stood by and watched as Saigon fell to the armies of North Vietnam. The world watched live coverage and photos of desperate men and women clinging to helicopters that would take off without them, falling out of the sky as their former American allies fled the country to leave them to their fate. In 2021, deja vu struck as American planes fled Afghanistan with the same kicking and screaming refugees begging to be taken along.

After 20 years, the American military, under president Joe Biden, finally withdrew from Afghanistan as their enemies, the Taliban, seized control of the country again. After 20 years and hundreds of thousands of Afghans dead, the country is right back where it started.

This process was a long time in the making. Withdrawing from the war  was a decision that has been brewing for years, that was opposed since the idea of invasion was first extended, and has only gained support since the U.S. accomplished its original goal in the country. Where did we start? How did we get here?

It’s only fair to start at the very beginning. Afghanistan has long been an enigma in popular imagination. At once, Afghanistan was Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and South Asian, at the same time, but also none of those things. Situated smack in the middle of the Silk Road, it has long been a crossing and marketplace of ideas and cultures, and as a result, a rich and storied history can be found. 

Being at the crossroads of various cultures and empires, Afghanistan has been invaded countless times throughout its lifespan, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to the Great British invasion. By 1870, after repeated incursions by Arab conquerors, Islam had taken root.

Being at the crossroads of empires meant that before long, tragedy would arrive at Afghanistan’s door again. That form came under the red banner of the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

Following decades of Soviet influence in the region, a communist revolution swept the country in 1978, formally pulling the government of Afghanistan into a state of satellite control by Russia. This would not go unchallenged, however. 

In 1979 civil war would erupt as the Communist government began to clash with Rebels, and before long the Soviet Union itself would be pulled into the conflict. What resulted was a decade-long, bloody war that would eventually see the total withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Soviet Union’s very own Vietnam.

This is not, however, before the United States became involved, arming and funding Islamist Mujahadeen rebels. The Mujahideen were a united front of Afghan traditional rebel groups dedicated to fighting Jihad against their atheist invaders. Jihad would bring thousands of international volunteers to the country, including one Osama Bin Laden. 

Following Soviet withdrawal in 1988, civil war would continue as the Mujahadeen approached the capital in Kabul and finally toppled the communist government once and for all. As the various Mujahideen leaders began discussing the sharing of power and coalition governments, one group broke away.

This group, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, would eventually become the Taliban. By 1995, , they would become the dominant force in the country; they rode on promises of peace to the tired nation. Before long, the Taliban would crackdown on opium poppy cultivation, crime, and women’s rights.

The Taliban would remain in control of the country steadily for only a couple of years before their once-upon-a-time ally returned to the foray. After having traced Bin Laden to rural Afghanistan, the United States began a deadly bombing campaign in the country as the Taliban’s hold began to disintegrate. In no time, the U.S. would invade Afghanistan. 

A temporary government was established in the nation, built on shaky ground. For the first time in generations, there are elections that millions of Afghans registered and voted in. It seems as if true peace is almost possible.

However, it was not meant to be. Following increasing pressure to withdraw from the country after more than a decade of war, President Barack Obama began the process of withdrawal, which would be continued under the two subsequent presidents, before the American armed forces withdrew completely in 2021. 

In the power vacuum left behind, the Taliban surged to fill the void. For millions of women, girls, religious minorities, and humanitarian workers as well as many more, a new state of fear gripped the country by the throat. Many still remembered those days 20 years before when the Taliban was first in control and instituted oppressive laws including refusal to allow women to attend school. 

Afghanistan has had a storied and troubled history, one that saw it invaded constantly, pulled, stretched, and torn by opposing factions in a much larger political game, as the average Afghan simply struggled to get by. Now, as Afghanistan enters a new era of totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism, it is important to remember the history that got the country to this point and the powers behind it.