When the U.S. decided to attack the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, President George W. Bush said the ‘War on Terror’ would not end “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”. This was a tall order. The U.S. toppled the Taliban quickly and Afghanistan eventually got an elected government under President Hamid Karzai. But after 17 years of fighting, the war has reached nowhere. Since 2009, when the United Nations started documenting the casualties of the war, nearly 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in conflict and another 50,000 wounded. The U.S., which has spent some $877 billion on the war, has lost at least 2,000 military personnel in Afghanistan since the war began.
And what did it get in return? The Taliban, which retreated in 2001, is on the comeback trail. Some estimates suggest that nearly half of Afghanistan, mostly the mountainous hinterlands, is now controlled by the Taliban. In the east, a small cell of the Islamic State is well-entrenched and has carried out a series of sectarian attacks in recent months, killing hundreds of Hazara Shias. The government is grappling with chronic corruption, and regional satraps call the shots outside Kabul.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made it clear many times that he wants to bring American troops back home. Yet he decided to send more troops to Afghanistan in 2017 to step up the fight against the Taliban. Since then, the U.S. has carried out large-scale air operations in Afghanistan, but it has failed to arrest the Taliban’s momentum. The group continues to hold sway in rural Afghanistan and retains the capability to strike anywhere in the country. Just since 2014, Afghanistan has lost some 45,000 soldiers in battle. Amid mounting losses and an inability to break the stalemate in the conflict, the Americans, like the British Empire in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century, seem to have realised that the first major war of the 21st century is no longer sustainable.