U.S. and NATO Foreign Policy in Afghanistan: Historical Analysis and the Implications of Withdrawal from Afghanistan

by Zachary Pittman

  • Zach Pittman is a current Masters of Arts in Statecraft and International Affairs student with the Institute of World Politics. He previously worked for the Counterterrorism Group as assistant team lead for the Counter Threat Strategic Communications team and a Counterintelligence and Cyber analyst. His interests are in Middle Eastern and North African affairs, geopolitics, the Arabic language, culture and U.S. national security.

Note: The text was written in June 2021, when the situation in Afghanistan was very different from that in August 2021, when the Taliban culminated in their offensive against Kabul. The text is provided to our magazine especially by the author under title: U.S. and NATO Foreign Policy in Afghanistan: Historical Analysis During the Soviet Invasion, The Creation of the Taliban, and the Implications of the U.S. and NATO Members’ Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Photo: India Today

Over the past 50 years, Afghanistan’s history has been constant tribal warfare and warfare with foreign nations such as the Soviet Union in 1979-1989. In 1965 the USSR saw an opportunity within Afghanistan to install a Communist regime with the rise of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The Soviet plan started unraveling in 1967 when the PDPA split into two factions – the Khalq and Parcham political parties and Kremlin attempted to avoid direct involvement within Afghanistan while both Communist-Nationalist parties feuded for power for over the next decade.


“In April 1978, Afghanistan’s centrist government, headed by Pres. Mohammad Daud Khan was overthrown by left-wing military officers led by Nur Mohammad Taraki. Power was thereafter shared by two Marxist-Leninist political groups, the People’s (Khalq) Party and the Banner (Parcham) Party, which had earlier emerged from a single organization, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan—and had reunited in an uneasy coalition shortly before the coup.“

Within months the Soviet Union officially intervened on behalf of the newly formed government of Afghanistan, fighting the non-Communist factions and ending the internal quarrels between the Communist parties. The Soviet Union’s invasion and subsequent occupation caused mass migration due to their horrific war crimes committed against the civilian populations. To stop Afghans from supporting the opposing Mujahideen, the Soviet army ran bombing missions against the rural areas and targeted civilians such as children and women. The bombing missions caused mass migration into Pakistan and Iran, so „by 1982 some 2.8 million Afghans had sought asylum in Pakistan, and another 1.5 million had fled to Iran.“

The continuous killing of civilians and mass migration led to a refugee crisis and allowed the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is the premier government intelligence agency, to take advantage from the situation. It took in Afghan refugee children from an early age and put them in Islamic theology schools, Madrassas, recruiting them later for war against the Soviet Union for two purposes – fight the Soviet foreign invaders and establish a government in Kabul that would be pro-Pakistani. According to Sean Winchell „between 1983 and 1997, the ISI trained approximately 83,000 Afghan Mujahideen.“ (Winchell, 2003).

The U.S. was a minor player in the conflict until members of Congress and the CIA developed a plan (code-named operation Cyclone) to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The Americans funded and armed factions of the Mujahideen, which led to a stalemate for years until the CIA started supplying them with the Stinger surface-to-air portable missile systems. Those Stinger systems were easy to use and helped the Mujahideen fighters target the Soviet aircraft and armored vehicles that had been impenetrable to Afghan weapons until then . The Soviet Union had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and by their withdrawal, they had estimated 15,000 deaths and a more considerable number of casualties.

The Mujahideen forces eventually prevailed, and with the help of the CIA and ISI, forced the Soviet Union to withdraw entirely in 1989 after signing an agreement in 1988 with the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 led the United States to cut its funding for Afghanistan’s covert action and aid. In his book „Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History the journalist George Crile says that „the cut to the Afghanistan budget was against the advice of the CIA, knowing that the country was in dire need of infrastructure funding and unification of the tribes to create stability.” According to the New York Times (NYT) 1988 article, „At the end of 1983, Mr. Wilson persuaded his colleagues to provide $40 million for weapons… The budget for the covert operation more than doubled, to $280 million in the fiscal year 1985 from $122 million in 1984, members of Congress said.“

After Operation Cyclone officially ended, the U.S. agreed they saw victory in their mission within Afghanistan and left, but the actual result was a void that the Taliban and Al Qaeda later filled. In hindsight, the implications of the United States’ policy not to invest in Afghanistan post-Soviet withdrawal led to the strengthened Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorist groups, which had haven internally to train members from various Muslim nations to fight their jihad globally.

The ISI’s success in the students recruited from the Madrassas led them to invest further in the Taliban. „The ISI, taking notice of the Taliban’s gains, secured financial backing from Bhutto’s government and began to recruit students from madrasas all over Pakistan in an effort to support the fledgling Taliban, then led by Mullah Muhammad Omar“ (Winchell, 2003). The continual investment into the Taliban, their growth and control over the majority of Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s refusal to cooperate with the United States in capturing Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden led the U.S. to combat the Islamic fundamentalist movement after September 11th, 2001 (9/11). Pakistan’s ISI support ended after then President Musharraf ordered General Mahmud, ISI’s Director-General, to travel to Kandahar and order the Taliban to give up Osama bin Laden; General Mahmud did the opposite and advised against this order (Winchell, 2003). President Musharraf replaced Director-General Mahmud with Lieutenant General Ehsan Ul-Haq, leading the ISI to stop their funding and training of the Taliban and assisting the U.S. with intelligence to combat Al Qaeda.

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