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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Afghanistan: a timeline of a decades-long ‘foreign battlefield’

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Afghanistan has faced multiple conflicts over the past 42 years, turning a country rich in culture, heritage and natural resources into an all-out war zone.

Earlier this month, Taliban militants took over Kabul without facing resistance from government forces, marking the beginning of chaos and civil unrest in the country that exacerbated an already prominent refugee crisis.

Although the swift capture of Kabul came as a shock to many, it followed weeks of rapid territorial gains across the country. An earlier announcement by the US Joe Biden administration months earlier had served as a boost in confidence for the Taliban, who were now equipped with knowledge of a US and NATO troop withdrawal from the nation.

This, together with a lack of an American exit plan plan, gave the Taliban open access into the heart of Kabul two decades after Washington launched a deadly conflict to fight the militants.

To understand the latest developments in Afghanistan, we take a look back the birth of the insurgent group and the country’s decades of war.

1950s

While the Soviet invasion of 1979 was believed to be the starting point of its intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviets had in fact been heavily involved in the country from as early as the 50s.

Pro-Soviet General Mohammed Daoud Khan, the country’s prime minister at the time, was keen on developing strong bilateral ties with the Soviet Union, introducing social reforms that included allowing women to access education. 

Khan later launched a military coup against his cousin, brother-in-law and Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah. He also cracked down on opponents and was later killed in a communist coup.

1978

The country was then led by founders of the Afghan Communist Party Nur Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal, claiming independence from the Soviets and opting to govern the country based on Islamic principles instead.

Meanwhile, the Mujahideen emerged to fight the Soviet regime.

1979

25 December: Following a power struggle between Afghan officials, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan with the goal of establishing a pro-Soviet government. 

During that time over eight million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, starting the beginning of a now-ongoing refugee crisis.

Exclusive: Mass evacuation of Afghans ‘draining Afghanistan of its brains’, Qatar’s Lolwah Al Khater says

27 December: Amin and his supporters were executed and Karmal soon became the prime minister of Afghanistan.

1980

The Mujahideen launched a fight against Soviet forces with US backing in the 1980s. This took place under the CIA’s Operation Cyclone through Pakistan’s leader Mohammed Zia-ul Haq. The Pakistani leader invited Muslim countries to send volunteers to join the group – among whom was Osama Bin Laden.

Washington provided guerrilla fighters with weapons and money in a war that killed one million Afghan civilians and caused 15,000 deaths among Soviet soldiers.

1982

By 1982, the number of Afghans who fled to Pakistan reached 2.8 million in addition to 1.5 million others who cross into Iran. Afghan fighters controlled rural areas of Afghanistan and Soviet troops dominated urban areas.

1983

12 November: In clear sign of support to the Mujahideen, US President at the time Ronald Reagan met with the fighters in the White House and described them as “freedom fighters”.

1986

The Mujahideen grew stronger militarily after the US, Britain and China provided them with anti-aircraft Stinger missiles. This was followed with Soviet negotiations over their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

1987

Pro-Soviet leader Mohammad Najibullah became Afghanistan’s president, replacing Karmal.

1988

September: Bin Laden and 15 other jihadists formed Al-Qaeda to expand their fight against the soviets as well as those who opposed “Islamic” governance. The group believed that America was a major obstacle in the formation of a state based on their interpretation of Islam.

14 April: Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, the US and Pakistan signed the Geneva peace accords in which they agreed on peace settlements in Kabul. This also marked the beginning of the withdrawal of 100,000 Soviet troops from Afghanistan after almost a decade of war.

1989

15 February: The last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan, officially ending an entire decade of war in the country. However, this marked the beginning of a long civil war.

Last soviet troops leave Afghanistan. Source:
RIA Novosti archive

1990

April: The Mujahideen entered Kabul after being positioned in rural areas throughout the war and Najibullah was placed under house arrest at a UN compound after attempting to flee the country.

Fighting among Mujahideen factions escalated, destroying the Afghan capital and killing at least 50,000 people. 

1994 – Rise of the Taliban

The Taliban emerged in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar after it was founded by Mullah Mohammad Omar and his students.

Omar made it his mission to establish a strict Islamic rule based on his religious interpretations and used it as the pretext to clear the country from corruption. This persuaded up to 15,000 religious students from Afghanistan and Pakistan to join the group.

1995

After suffering from war, the Taliban became more popular among some Afghans who were lured by the group’s alleged Islamic values and ideas of governance, along with promises of restoring order.

The Taliban became richer through opium trade and began to impose strict rules, including banning women from going out without a male guardian, forcing them to cover up from head-to-toe and holding public executions and amputations.

1996

May: Bin Laden moved back to Afghanistan from Sudan.

26 September: The Taliban publicly executed Najibullah and his brother after capturing Kabul, marking the beginning of their control over the country. Only three countries officially recognised the Taliban regime, including: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

1998

7 August: Al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, of which 12 were Americans. In retaliation for the dual attacks, US President Bill Clinton launched cruise missiles on Khost where Bin Laden’s training camps were located.

However, Bin Laden and other leaders of the group were not affected.

2001 – the beginning of the US invasion

March: The Taliban remained in power and grew more violent, destroying 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues – the world’s largest Buddha statues- carved into mountains in Bamiyan. 

4 September: The Taliban placed a group of eight western aid workers on trial and accused them of preaching Christianity, before detaining them in different prisons across the country.

11 September: Four commercial airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing 2,997 people.

Source: Cyril Attias via Flickr

Then-US President George W Bush demanded that Bin Laden surrenders to Washington as he was believed to be the organiser of the attacks, along with Mullah Omar. The Taliban were ordered to hand over Bin Laden, but refused to do so, requesting proof from Washington to confirm his role in the attacks.

NATO then announced a mutual defence clause which stated that an attack on an ally constituted an attack on the entirety of the alliance.

Despite the fact that none of the hijackers were Afghan, Bush vowed to wage war on terror in Afghanistan, calling on the Taliban to “deliver to the United States authorities all the leaders of Al-Qaeda who hide in your land”.

18 September: President Bush signed a joint resolution permitting the use of force against those behind the 9/11 attacks. This included moves such as invading Afghanistan and eavesdropping on US citizens without a court order.

7 October: US and British military launched attacks on Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom.

13 November: The Northern Alliance entered Kabul following weeks of fighting, forcing the Taliban to return to Kandahar.

3-to-17 December: A two week battle took place in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, resulting in the escape of Bin Laden from his Tora Bora cave complex to Pakistan on horseback.

7 December: During the war, Hamid Karzai was named the interim president two days after the signing of the Bonn Agreement by anti-Taliban factions and political groups, paving the way for the establishment of peace and security in Afghanistan and the reconstruction of the country.

9 December: Taliban leaders surrendered and Mullah Omar left Kandahar, declaring the end of the insurgent’s rule.

2002

March: Operation Anaconda is launched against up to 800 Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Shah-i-Kot Valley south of the city of Gardez. It was the largest operation since the Tora Bora attack.

During the same time, Washington shifted its attention to Iraq by waging a deadly war based on claims that it contained “weapons of mass destruction”, which was later proven to be false.

2003

1 May: War criminal and US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld declared the end of “major combat” in Kabul as President Bush said the mission was accomplished. There were only 8,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan at the time. That period was described as a time for reconstruction. 

The US was also occupied with the war in Iraq.

2004

January: A new constitution adopted by up to 500,000 Afghans was adopted, calling for holding presidential elections in Afghanistan and the appointment of two vice presidents while urging equality for women.

“Afghans have seized the opportunity provided by the United States and its international partners to lay the foundation for democratic institutions and provide a framework for national elections,” said US Ambassador to Afghanistan at the time Zalmay Khalilzad.

9 October: Karzai became the country’s first democratically elected president following a high voter turnout of more than 10.5 million Afghans. The president’s victory was also followed by accusations of fraud by his opponents.

Hamid Karzai. Source: Kremlin

29 October: Bin Laden made his first television appearance since the fall of the Taliban, claiming the 9/11 attacks in a video message aired on Al Jazeera.

“We want to restore freedom to our nation, just as you lay waste to our nation,” he said.

2005

23 May: Karzai and Bush agreed to become strategic partners, granting the US access to Afghan military facilities to prosecute “the war against international terror and the struggle against violent extremism”.

In turn, the US agreed to train, equip and sustain Afghan security forces.

18 September: Afghanistan held its first parliamentary elections in over 30 years, with women dominating nearly half of the ballots. Sixty-eight out of 249 seats were set for women members of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament and 23 out of 102 were reserved in the upper house.

2006

July: Afghanistan witnessed violent escalations and a rise in suicide bombings as the US was busy invested in its war in Iraq.

The number of suicide attacks quintupled from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006 and remote detonated bombings more than doubled to 1,677.

The Taliban began reemerging during this period and engaged in deadly battles with the Afghan government, seizing southern territories in Afghanistan.

2009

17 February: Newly-elected US President Barack Obama announced plans to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

27 March: Obama announced a new American strategy in Afghanistan to track progress made in fighting Al-Qaeda – a move welcomed by President Karzai. The US president also deployed 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to train the Afghan army and police to fight the insurgents.

NATO, US Congress praise Qatar’s ‘bold leadership’ in Afghanistan airlift operation

20 August: President Karzai wins another term after running against Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission probed the new fraud allegations and found that Karzai won only 49.67%.

He then agreed to hold the votes again on 7 November. He won after Abdullah pulled out of the vote.

1 December: Obama increased the military’s presence in Afghanistan by deploying an additional 30,000 forces on top of the 68,000 to increase the US’ “ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight”.

He also said a troop withdrawal will begin by July 2011.

2010

November: NATO members signed a declaration agreeing to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 starting from July 2011.

2011

2 May: Bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan.

22 June: Obama announced a plan for withdrawing 10,000 troops by the end of 2011 and 33,000 others by the summer of 2012.

7 October: A decade passed since the start of the invasion that cost the US’ economy trillions of dollars. The US faced a 9.1% unemployment rate and $1.3 trillion annual budget deficit.

Source: Atlantic Council

20 September: Plans to hold talks with the Taliban were cancelled following the assassination of the Afghan government’s chief negotiator, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Afghan officials pointed the blame towards the Pakistan-based Haqqani network. However, the group denied involvement in the killing.

2012

January: The Taliban and Qatar inked an agreement to open a political office for the insurgents in the Gulf state, a move that the US saw as a step towards reaching a political settlement in Afghanistan.

February: US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced plans to conclude combat missions by as early as mid-2013. American forces were also criticised at the time following “accidental” burnings of the Quran and the killing of 16 Afghan civilians in villages by a US soldier. This followed Karzai’s orders to withdraw foreign troops from villages and outposts.

March: The Taliban cancelled preliminary peace talks citing the US’ refusal to exchange prisoners.

2013

June: NATO forces hand over military and security operations to the Afghan military. US officials also announced the resumption of peace talks in Doha, shortly after the inauguration of the Taliban’s political office the same month.

2014

27 May: Obama announced a timetable for withdrawing most US forces from Afghanistan by 2016 while leaving 9,800 troops following the end of the combat mission to train Afghan forces.

21 September: Ghani and Abdullah became the front-runners of the controversial Afghan presidential elections. Following US intervention, a power-sharing agreement declared the former as the president and the latter as chief executive.

8 December: US and NATO troops ended their combat missions.

2015

The Taliban started re-emerging and launched deadly attacks almost everyday in Afghanistan. These targeted Afghan and US forces and captured almost half of the country as the Islamic State militant group began to emerge.

3 May: Members of the Afghan government and the Taliban held informal meetings in Qatar and agreed on continuing talks over the situation in Afghanistan. Both parties described the meetings as “a “research conference” and “scientific discussions.”

30 July: The Taliban announced that Mullah Omar had died in 2013 after hiding his death, making Mullah Akhtar Mansour the new leader. However, the US killed him a year later in a drone attack in Pakistan.

15 October: Obama backed out of the planned troop withdrawal set for the end of his presidency and decided to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan.

2018

January: Newly-elected US President Donald Trump continued the war amid escalations by the Taliban. The Trump administration instead implemented an Afghanistan plan to deploy more troops across rural Afghanistan, this time to attack opium labs as the Taliban’s finances heavily relied on drug trade.

Source: WikiCommons

July: The US held official negotiations with the Taliban without the involvement of the Afghan government or NATO.

September: Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed as Washington’s envoy to Afghanistan and negotiator with the Taliban.

2019

February: Qatar started hosting high level negotiations between the US and the Taliban, focusing on the withdrawal of American and foreign troops in exchange for a halt in violence by the group. Khalilzad later announced that an agreement had been reached “in principle” with Taliban leaders.

7 September: Trump called off peace talks with the Taliban and then-President Ghani after the former killed a US soldier in an attack. The Taliban expressed its commitment to negotiations but warned the number of deaths will only increase if no resolution is made.

2020

29 February: Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Baradar inked a “historic” agreement in Qatar, in which Washington agreed to withdraw all foreign troops by 1 May 2021 if the Taliban stopped using Afghanistan for terrorist activities. The deal also conditioned that intra-Afghan talks take place in March.

Signing of the February agreement. Source: QNA

President Ghani later said the Taliban must meet his government’s conditions before entering talks.

12 September: The intra-Afghan talks started in Qatar, a high-profile meeting that many saw as a sign of hope towards establishing peace in Afghanistan. Diplomats from the Afghan government and members of the Taliban met face-to-face for the first time in decades.

However, the talks stalled with the Afghan government calling for a ceasefire and the Taliban insisting on governing the country through an Islamic system.

17 November: The US announced plans to cut its troop size in half to 2,500 by mid-January.

2021

February: Talks in Qatar resumed despite a surge in violence in Afghanistan.

March: Khalilzad arrived in Qatar and proposed an international conference that was later scheduled to take place in Turkey. Russia later hosted an international meeting on the Afghan peace process in the same month and the parties failed to reach an agreement once again.

9 April: The Istanbul meeting was postponed after the Taliban refused to attend. Qatar also hosted an “extended troika” meeting calling on the Taliban to cease fire.

14 April: President Biden announced his decision to push the deadline for the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan to 11 September instead of the initial 1 May deadline without any conditions. The Taliban protested his decision and refused to participate in any conference on Afghanistan until all foreign troops are out of the country.

May: The Taliban started intensifying attacks in Afghanistan, with districts in the north falling to the insurgent group.

2 July: US troops left the Bagram Airfield overnight, the place in which they used to carry out all their military operations. It also housed a prison that had some 5,000 Taliban inmates.

26 July: The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan [UNAMA] said nearly 2,400 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in May and June alone, the highest number for those months since it started recording data in 2009.

UNAMA also warned that the country was set to witness its highest civilian casualties since it started its records if no ceasefire is reached by the end of the year.

Beginning of the Taliban takeover

6 August: The Taliban claimed the first provincial capital of Zaranj.

7 August: The Taliban captured Jawzjan and its capital Sheberghan.

8 August: The Taliban captured Sar-e-Pul and Taluqan.

9 August: The Taliban seized Kunduz and Aybak.

10 August: Pul-e-Khumri and Farah were captured by the Taliban. On the same day, Qatar was hosting an international conference on Afghanistan. The warring factions did not sit on one table of negotiations.

Doha News

11 August: The Taliban captured Faizabad.

12 August: Ghazni, Herat and Kandahar were all seized by the Taliban.

13 August: The Taliban took over Lashkar Gah, Qala-e-Naw, Feruz Koh, Pul-e-Alam, Terenkot and Qalat. The total provincial capitals captured by the Taliban in a week reached 18.

14 August: Mazar-i-Sharif and Pul-e-Alam were fully captured by the Taliban.

15 August: The Taliban took over Jalalabad, leaving Kabul as the last major area under the control of the Afghan government. However, it was a matter of hours before the Taliban entered Kabul, creating a state of panic for Afghans.

The Afghan government collapsed and Ashraf Ghani fled the country to Tajikistan before reaching his final destination, the UAE. By the end of the day, footage showed Taliban militants occupying the Afghan presidential palace.

Source: Al Jazeera English

17 August: The Taliban held its their first press conference since assuming power, in which the group promised to have an inclusive government and grant females their right to work and receive education “under Islamic law”.

Meanwhile evacuations were underway in Kabul, with foreign troops firing shots in the air to repel Afghans desperate to leave the country.

Qatar was the only Gulf state to join international calls in ensuring safe evacuations of Afghans from the country. In the span of 72 hours, Qatar evacuated over 300 students, mostly female, and over 200 media personnel.

18 August: Reports stated that members of the former Afghan government sought asylum in Qatar as former President Ashraf Ghani fled to the UAE with “tonnes of cash”.

Exclusive: Taliban warns US deadline extension would mark ‘second violation’

21 August: US President Joe Biden expressed his appreciation for Qatar’s evacuation efforts of foreign personnel in Afghanistan in a phone call with Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

“The President noted that this is the largest airlift of people in history and that it would not have been possible without the early support from Qatar to facilitate the transfer of thousands of people daily.”

22 August: Taliban leaders, members of the former Afghan government hold talks over the formation of an “inclusive” government.

23 August: In an exclusive interview with the Taliban’s spokesman in Qatar, Suhail Shaheen, the group warns of consequences if the US extends its deadline, describing it as a second violation.

26 August: ISIS-Khorosan carried out multiple suicide bombings near the gates of Kabul’s airport, killing at least 169 Afghans. The group, which first emerged in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014, is an enemy of both the West and the Taliban.

Qatar evacuates more than 40,000 people from Afghanistan with the number expected to increase over the next few days and weeks.

29 August: US drone strike killed 10 members of the same family, most of whom were children. The Pentagon said it acknowledged the reports of civilian casualties and said it is still assessing the results of the strike.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he is working with Britain and Germany on a UN proposal to establish a safe zone in Kabul that would enable the safe passage of those trying to leave the country.

The UK formally ended its presence in Afghanistan and announced its decision to move its embassy to Qatar.

30 August: Qatar participates in G7 meeting along with Turkey ahead of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Doha and Ankara are in negotiations with the Taliban in order to ensure the save passage of Afghans from the civilian side of the Hamid Karzai Airport.

31 August: The US formally ends its military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan just hours ahead of the deadline. Washington announces all Afghanistan diplomatic operations will be carried out from Qatar.


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