On August 15, 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid take over over the country with a speed that surprised many Afghans and Americans alike.The Taliban’s advance came as the United States was completing the military withdrawal to which it agreed in the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban accord. The fall of the elected Afghan government, supported by billions of dollars in U.S. asistance over the course of nearly two decades, raises significant questions about past, present, and future U.S. policy for Members of Congress.
Some additional lines o finquiry that Congress may wish to explore with the Executive Branch are included alongside specific topics as appropriate. The report concludes with some strategic considerations Congress may wish to contemplate as it assesses the situation in Afghanistan and its implications for the future.
With a general U.S. target date for the completion of the military withdrawal and evacuation operation set at August31,
2021, the situation on the ground remains extremely fluid, particularly in light of the August 26, 2021, Islamic State- KhorasanProvince terrorist attack at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
In 1993-1994, Afghan Muslim clerics and students, mostly of rural, Pashtun origin, formed the Taliban movement. Many were former anti-Soviet fighters known as mujahideen who had become disillusioned with the civil war among mujahideen parties that broke out after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet-supported government in 1992. Many members of the movement had studied in seminaries in Pakistan and chose the name Taliban (plural of talib, a student of Islam) to distance themselves from the mujahideen. Pakistan supported the Taliban because of the group’s potential to “bring order in chaotic Afghanistan and make it a cooperative ally,” thus giving Pakistan “greater security on one of the several borders where Pakistani military officers hoped for what they called “strategic depth.” Taliban beliefs and practices were consonant with, and derived in part from, the conservative tribal traditions of Pashtuns, who represent a plurality (though not a majority) of Afghanistan’s complex ethnic makeup and who have traditionally ruled Afghanistan.
The Taliban viewed the post-Soviet government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani as weak, corrupt, and anti-Pashtun. The four years of civil war between the mujahideen groups (1992- 1996) created popular support for the Taliban as they were seen as less corrupt and more able to deliver stability; as U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad wrote in his 2016 memoir, “I, like many, was optimistic about the Taliban” at the outset. The Taliban took control of the southern city of Kandahar in November 1994 and launched a series of military campaigns throughout the country that culminated in the capture of Kabul on September 27, 1996.
The Taliban quickly lost international and domestic support as the group imposed strict adherence to its interpretation of Islam in areas it controlled and employed harsh punishments, including public executions, to enforce its decrees, including bans on television, Western music, and dancing. It prohibited women from attending school or working outside the home, except in health care, and publicly executed women for alleged adultery. In March 2001, the Taliban drew international condemnation by destroying monumental sixth-century Buddha statues carved into hills above Bamyan city, which the Taliban considered idolatrous and contrary to Islamic norms.
The United States had played a major role in supporting anti-Soviet mujahideen, but U.S. attention to Afghanistan declined with the withdrawal of Soviet troops after the 1988 Geneva Accords; the U.S. embassy in Kabul was evacuated for security reasons in January 1989 and remained closed until 2001. The United States sustained some military assistance to mujahideen groups who continued to fight the Soviet-supported Afghan government. After that government fell in 1992, there was little appetite to maintain U.S. engagement.
By the time the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, U.S. policy toward the group was unclear as, according to one observer, “American officials issued a cacophony of statements—some skeptical, some apparently supportive—from which it was impossible to deduce a clear position.” Rising international and U.S. popular attention to the plight of Afghan women, and a renewed focus on human rights under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, led to, by 1997, U.S. policy shifting against the Taliban. This shift occurred despite support for the group from U.S. partner SaudiArabia (one of the three countries, along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, that recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan).
The Taliban’s sheltering of Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Osama bin Laden eventually became the central issue affecting U.S. views of and relations with the Taliban. In 1996, bin Laden moved from Sudan to Afghanistan, where he had previously spent most of the 1980s as a high profile financier and organizer of efforts to aid the mujahideen. Pakistani intelligence officers reportedly introduced Bin Laden to Taliban leaders in Kandahar; bin Laden established an alliance with the Taliban whereby he provided millions in financial aid to the group (and military support for Taliban efforts to complete their conquest of the country) and the Taliban provided safe haven for AQ recruits and training camps. Over 10,000 AQ fighters may have trained at AQ camps in Afghanistan. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson visited Kabul in April 1998, the highest ranking U.S. official to do so in decades. In response to Richardson’s request that the Taliban expel bin Laden, the group “answered that they did not know his whereabouts. In any case, the Taliban said, [bin Laden] was not a threat to the United States.”
The threat posed by bin Laden became clearer on August 7, 1998, when Al Qaeda operatives simultaneously bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 200 people. In response, the United States launched cruise missile attacks on AQ targets in Afghanistan that were unsuccessful in either killing bin Laden or persuading the Taliban to expel him. U.S. pressure on the Saudis and Pakistanis to use their influence to convince the Taliban to expel the AQ leader proved equally unsuccessful. In July 1999, President Bill Clinton imposed sanctions on the Taliban that were equivalent to those imposed on governments deemed state sponsors of terror (E.O. 13129). United Nations Security Council travel and economic sanctions against the Taliban were added in October with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1267 and expanded with UNSCR 1333, which included an arms embargo against the Taliban, in December 2000. In the face of these threats, Taliban leadership was unmoved; their relationship with bin Laden was “sometimes tense” but “the foundation was deep and personal,” according to the 9/11 Commission Report.
On September 11, 2001, AQ operatives conducted a series of terrorist attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people. In a nationwide address before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over AQ leaders, permanently close terrorist training camps, and give the United States access to such camps, adding that the Taliban “must hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.” Taliban leaders refused, citing bin Laden’s status as their guest.
Pursuant to an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) enacted on September 18, 2001 (P.L. 107-40), U.S. military action began on October 7, 2001, with airstrikes on Taliban targets throughout the country and close air support to anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan. Limited numbers of U.S. Army Special Forces, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paramilitary forces, and some conventional ground forces began deploying in Afghanistan less than two weeks later.15 By November 13, the Taliban evacuated Kabul, which was soon retaken by those Afghan forces (known as the Northern Alliance).
As U.S.-backed Afghan forces drew closer to the southern city of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban movement and home of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, Taliban leaders reportedly offered terms of surrender, including an amnesty for Taliban fighters who would lay down their arms. U.S. officials rejected such an amnesty and while many Taliban fighters and leaders were killed or captured by U.S. or Afghan forces, others (including Mullah Omar) sought shelter in remote or rural parts of Afghanistan or escaped to Pakistan.
In December 2001, Afghan delegates convened in Bonn, Germany, by the United Nations selected Hamid Karzai to serve as head of an interim national government, marking the beginning of post-Taliban governance. No attempt appears to have been made to include the Taliban in those talks. No Taliban members participated in the 2002 emergency loya jirga (consultative assembly) that elected Karzai as president.
The creation of the new Afghan government also represented the beginning of a major new mission set for U.S. forces and their international partners: helping defend and develop that government and its nascent military. Karzai attended the January 2002 State of the Union address where President Bush previewed this expanded mission, saying that the United States and Afghanistan were “allies against terror” and that “we will be partners in rebuilding that country.” Congress supported the Bush Administration in this approach, authorizing and appropriating funds for more expansive U.S. military and civilian assistance missions (e.g., via the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act, 2002, P.L. 107-327, reauthorized and expanded in the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act Amendments of 2004, Section 7104 of P.L. 108-458). U.S. officials declared an end to major combat operations in Afghanistan on May 1, 2003, though then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that “pockets of resistance in certain parts of the country remain.”
By 2005, scattered Taliban forces had already begun to regroup in the Pashtun heartland of eastern and southern Afghanistan, as well as across the border in Pakistan, where many observers suspected that Pakistan’s security and intelligence services were tolerating, if not actively supporting them. The Taliban described continuing U.S. and coalition military operations in Afghanistan as a military occupation and characterized their Afghan government adversaries as puppets of foreign powers.
In response to growing Taliban activity, the United States gradually increased forces to around 30,000 by the end of the George W. Bush Administration. Under the Obama the United States and its partners further increased international force levels as part of a “surge” which peaked at over 130,000 troops (of which around 100,000 were U.S. troops) in 2010-11, but set a goal to end combat operations by the end of 2014. Though that “surge” was arguably successful in weakening Taliban advances, by 2010 the Obama Administration assessed that military means alone would not resolve the conflict. Preliminary U.S.-Taliban negotiations were constrained by U.S. policy to require the inclusion of the Afghan government, with which the Taliban refused to meet, in any settlement. As international force levels were reduced in advance of the scheduled 2014 transition, NATO began gradually transferring security duties to Afghan forces starting in 2011. Afghan forces assumed full responsibility for security nationwide at the end of 2014 with the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the start of the noncombat Resolute Support Mission (RSM) that began on January 1, 2015. In addition to training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces as part of RSM, U.S. troops in Afghanistan also conducted counterterrorism operations; these two “complementary missions” comprised Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
How much has DOD spent on the war in Afghanistan?
According to the most recent DOD Cost of War quarterly report, from September 11, 2001, through March 31, 2021, the Department obligated a total of $837.3 billion in current dollars for military operations (i.e., Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel) and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan. (An obligation is a commitment for the payment of goods and services.)According to DOD, department annual obligations in current dollars for activities in Afghanistan peaked at $98 billion in FY2012 and decreased to $40 billion in FY2020, the last full fiscal year for which data are available.
According to SIGAR’s most recent quarterly report to Congress, from October 1, 2001, through June 30, 2021, Congress has appropriated or the U.S. government has otherwise made available approximately $145 billion in current dollars to federal agencies, including DOD, for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan. According to SIGAR, of that total, approximately $83 billion in current dollars went to the ASFF.
Some nongovernmental observers provide higher estimates of the cost of U.S. government activities in Afghanistan over the past two decades. For example, as of April 15, 2021, the Costs of War Project of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimated U.S.costs to date for the war in Afghanistan at $2.26 trillion.
For overseas contingency operations of the DOD and State Department, the estimate includes amounts for what it describes as other war-related costs, such as interest on the national debt from borrowing, increases to the DOD base budget, and medical care for U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan.
When President Donald Trump came into office in January 2017, approximately 11,000 U.S. troops were reportedly in Afghanistan, with U.S. force levels having declined from their 2009- 2011 high point of approximately 100,000 U.S. troops. In June 2017, President Trump delegated to Secretary of Defense James Mattis the authority to set force levels, reportedly limited to around 3,500 additional troops; Secretary Mattis signed orders to deploy them in September 2017. Those additional forces (all of which were dedicated to NATO-led RSM) arrived in Afghanistan within months, putting the total number of U.S. troops in the country between 14,000 and 15,000 by the end of 2017.
By mid-2018, President Trump was reportedly frustrated with the lack of military progress against the Taliban, and he ordered formal and direct U.S.-Taliban talks without Afghan government participation for the first time. As those talks developed under Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, President Trump continued to express frustration with the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan and a desire to withdraw U.S. forces, saying in August 2019 that he wanted to do so “as quickly as we can.”U.S. force levels began to contract in 2019: at an October 9, 2019, news conference, General Austin S. Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that the number of U.S. forces had been gradually reduced by 2,000 over the past year, to between 12,000 and 13,000.
In February 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a formal agreement in which the United States committed to withdrawing all of its troops, contractors, and non-diplomatic civilian personnel from Afghanistan, with a drawdown in military forces to 8,600 by mid-July 2020 and a complete withdrawal by the end of April 2021. In return, the Taliban committed to prevent any groups, including Al Qaeda, from threatening the United States or its allies by not allowing those groups to reside, train, or fundraise in Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrawal commitment was not conditioned on the Taliban reducing violence against the Afghan government, making concessions in intra-Afghan talks, or taking other actions.
The agreement also stated that up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government (which was not a party to the agreement) and up to 1,000 Afghan personnel captured by the Taliban “will be released” in March 2020. Per the agreement, intra-Afghan negotiations were also to begin that month, but talks remained unscheduled for months amid political gridlock in Kabul and disagreements over the prisoner release. The parties to the conflict completed the prisoner release in early September 2020, removing the main obstacle to intra-Afghan talks, which began in Doha on September 12, 2020.
Throughout 2020, U.S. officials stated that the Taliban were not in full compliance with the agreement, U.S. force levels continued to drop, reaching 8,600 one month ahead of the mid-July 2020 deadline in the U.S.-Taliban accord. Confusion about the United States’ future military posture grew in October 2020 due to contradictory visions expressed by senior Trump Administration officials, including President Trump’s tweet that, “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”
On November 17, 2020, then-Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced, “we will implement President Trump’s orders to continue our repositioning of forces” from Afghanistan, and that 2,500 U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan by January 15, 2021. Acting Secretary Miller characterized the drawdown (announced alongside a similar reduction of U.S. forces from Iraq) as “consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives,” and said it “does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.” On January 15, 2021, Acting Secretary Miller confirmed that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had reached 2,500.
President Biden, who took office on January 20, 2021, reportedly opposed the Obama Administration’s decision to increase U.S. force levels as Vice President in 2009, and expressed skepticism about troop levels in Afghanistan as a candidate during the 2020 primary campaign. As President, he said in a March 16, 2021, interview that the U.S.-Taliban agreement was “not a very solidly negotiated deal” and that meeting its May 1 withdrawal deadline “could happen” but would be “tough.” He also said an Administration review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan was “in process” and that reaching a decision would not take “a lot longer.” At a March 25, 2021, press conference, he said “I can’t picture” U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year.