2001: Invasion of Afghanistan Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The United States was not the first country to invade Afghanistan in modern times. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, took Kabul, its capital city, within one week and then spent the next decade trying to defeat Afghanistan’s mujahideen insurgents. The mujahideen received aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a loosely organized group of radical Muslims drawn from more than thirty countries. These Muslims deplored the Soviet invasion and the presence of 100,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan because they feared the Soviet Union would attempt to impose atheism upon the country.

The United States was not the first country to invade Afghanistan in modern times. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, took Kabul, its capital city, within one week and then spent the next decade trying to defeat Afghanistan’s mujahideen insurgents. The mujahideen received aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a loosely organized group of radical Muslims drawn from more than thirty countries. These Muslims deplored the Soviet invasion and the presence of 100,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan because they feared the Soviet Union would attempt to impose atheism upon the country.

Osama bin Laden

The mujahideen were ill equipped to fight invaders. The Saudis sought someone prominent to funnel money and military assistance into Afghanistan but had trouble finding anyone willing to accept that responsibility. Then Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who knew Afghanistan well, emerged to accept the challenge. He established training camps to prepare men to fight in what they regarded as an Afghan holy war, or jihad. Under bin Laden’s fundamentalist Islamic training, his followers formed al-Qaeda, an organization that would later be responsible for bombing two United States embassies, attacking the U.S. naval vessel Cole, and bombing the U.S. Air Force barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia.

On September 11, 2001, members of al-Qaeda launched air attacks on prominent American landmarks with four simultaneous suicide missions on hijacked commercial airliners. Two of the hijacked planes were flown into the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, causing both buildings to collapse, with a loss of thousands of lives. Another airliner was flown into the Pentagon Building outside Washington, D.C. A fourth crashed in Pennsylvania, while evidently headed toward an attack on the White House or the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.; it was evidently brought down when its civilian passengers–who had learned of the other attacks through cell-phone calls–rose up against the hijackers. All these incidents claimed approximately three thousand lives–mostly Americans.

The horrendous attacks of September 11 were recognized as the handiwork of Osama bin Laden, whose fingerprints were on earlier acts of terrorism that involved suicide bombers. Immediately after the attacks, the Bush administration demanded that the Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan, turn over bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to the United States and close al-Qaeda training camps inside Afghanistan. On October 7, 2001, after the Taliban refused to comply with the U.S. request, the United States declared war on Afghanistan, designating the campaign Operation Enduring Freedom. The ensuing American victory was swift. The Taliban regime capitulated in December.

The Hunt for bin Laden and New Weaponry

The U.S. Department of Justice made capturing Osama bin Laden its highest priority, offering a $25-million-dollar reward for his capture dead or alive. However, the hunt for bin Laden was made almost unimaginably difficult by Afghanistan’s rugged topography. The land is half again the size of California, and its climate is harsh. The country is honeycombed with networks of intersecting caves familiar to bin Laden and his cohorts but not to the Americans.

The search for bin Laden centered on Tora Bora, thirty miles southeast of Jalalabad. The Americans employed advanced weaponry designed to penetrate caverns in an effort to kill bin Laden or flush him from the caves in which he was presumed to be hiding. In March, 2002, a thermobaric bomb, the BLU-118/B, was dropped close to a cavern in which bin Laden was thought to be. However, because its laser guidance system was faulty, it fell short of its target. The BLU-118/B bomb releases a fine mist of combustible fuel that erupts into a fireball when ignited and penetrates deep caves and bunkers. Even with the use of thermobaric bombs and laser guidance systems, the search for bin Laden had not succeeded three years later.

Laser guidance systems require personnel on the ground to direct the the systems’ laser beams to their targets. These systems are disrupted by smoke or fog. In the Afghan war, Global Positioning Systems (GPSs), computers embedded in bombs, replaced many laser guidance systems. These so-called “smart bombs” proved accurate and reliable. The war with Afghanistan was also the first to employ unmanned aircraft (UVAs) as attack vehicles. Such aircraft had previously been used for target practice and reconnaissance, but early in the Afghan conflict, the Central Intelligence Agency used a reconfigured UVA to fire a Hellcat missile at a group of three men it identified as al-Qaeda operatives. After the three men were killed, they were found to be innocent bystanders, residents of an Afghan village. A similar error was made when a wedding party was misidentified from the air as a group of al-Qaeda and fired upon, killing nearly one hundred innocent civilians. Overall, American bombs had killed some 3,000 Afghan civilians by early 2005.

The Global Hawk and Predator were the two UVAs used in Afghanistan. Both of these aircraft are vulnerable to enemy fire as well as to bad weather and icing on their wings. They have the advantage, however, of being able to stay aloft unmanned for long periods to accomplish their missions without imperiling crew members. Through 2004, the United States lost one Global Hawk and five Predators in the Afghan war.

The initial Afghan invasion involved more bombing than ground combat. A mere fifteen Americans and five U.S. allies were killed by hostile fire. Another fifty-five Americans and twenty allies died in accidents or from so-called “friendly fire.” Meanwhile, innocent Afghan citizens were left wondering what they had done to deserve the punishment the United States and it allies visited upon them.

Logistics of the Afghan War

Because Afghanistan is a landlocked country, waging war upon it has historically always been difficult. The monumental problems involved in supplying troops with necessities in a place that is not accessible by ship have caused many would-be invaders to retreat. By the early twenty-first century, however, the United States possessed the technical wherewithal and financial resources to supply large numbers of troops by air. As the United States was preparing to wage war against Afghanistan, it committed approximately 140 supply aircraft to the war effort. These aircraft included C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III transport planes. The C-5 Galaxy can carry more than one hundred tons of cargo but requires airfields almost one mile long on which to land. The C-17 Globemaster, although it cannot carry as much cargo as the C-5 Galaxy, can land on airfields only three thousand feet long, which gives it an advantage in a country such as Afghanistan, whose airfields are small and often in poor condition.

The American commander of a coalition task force talks with Afghan citizens during a routine patrol in the Cehar Cineh area during Operation Outlaw in October, 2004. (U.S. Department of Defense)

During each of the early months of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, American troops consumed 3.6 million gallons of water and the contents of seventy-two eighteen-wheel truckloads of food and other supplies–all delivered by air. However, having the technology to supply the troops is not enough. The cost of supplying troops by air entails colossal expenditures. For this reason, the Pentagon favored waging a massive bombing campaign rather than a ground war in Afghanistan. As a consequence, the United States has conducted much of its offensive in the Afghan conflict from offices in the Pentagon Building, half a world away.

Specialized Military Personnel

In earlier wars, most army personnel were infantrymen and cavalry whose training was not highly specialized. Modern wars, however, have required soldiers trained to use highly complex and expensive equipment whose operation can be entrusted only to those who have had extensive specialized training. In Afghanistan, the logistics of ferreting out the enemy from caves and other hiding places in remote parts of the country have required the development of innovative weapons such as the thermobaric bombs. More than two thousand special forces from the United States, along with troops from other coalition member countries that joined with the United States, have been deployed to help in the Afghan conflict. These special forces usually comprise clusters of military personnel that seldom exceed a dozen members. They specialize in such fields as combat search-and-rescue, counterterrorism, clandestine surveillance, and jungle or desert warfare.

It is essential that highly specialized personnel be as mobile as possible. The MH-533 Pave Low III heavy-lift helicopter is designed specifically to transport specialized personnel, generally under cover of darkness. Equipped with special radar and infrared sensors to detect objects from a distance, this helicopter can fly close to the ground, making it difficult for enemy radar to detect it. It is armed with machine guns and heavy armor so that enemy fire cannot easily penetrate it.

When the United States attacked Iraq in March, 2003, many troops stationed in Afghanistan were redeployed to that country. The search for bin Laden continued, but the United States relied more than before on the aid of Afghans in the search. Some of those employed in the search were Afghan warlords whose loyalty to the U.S. cause was doubtful. Indeed, many of them were directly involved in Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade, which thrives because Afghanistan is well suited to growing the poppies from which opium is produced. After March, 2003, a much reduced force of American military personnel remained in Afghanistan, where insurgents constantly threatened them.

Democratic Changes in Afghanistan

On December 22, 2001, Hamid Karzai was inaugurated chairperson of the Afghan Interim Authority. In April, 2002, the former Afghan king, Muhammad Sahir Shah, returned to Kabul from his exile in Paris to attend the loya jirga, a grand council of Afghanistan’s leaders. During the following June, this council elected–by secret ballot–Karzai president of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, a post in which he served until a constitution was drafted and nationwide elections scheduled. On October 9, 2004, direct elections were held in Afghanistan. Ten and one-half million Afghans registered to vote, and for the first time, women were eligible to vote. Hamid Karzai won the presidency with 55.9 percent of the votes cast.

Through many decades of the twentieth century, the Afghan people lived in a country lacking central political authority. When the Taliban emerged in the early 1990’s, many Afghans eagerly embraced it because it offered an internal security that the country needed. During the mid-1990’s, an emerging al-Qaeda capitalized on the political and economic distrust of many Afghan citizens.

The drug trade has long been a thriving enterprise in Afghanistan. The provincial warlords who enrich themselves through this trade have no wish for a strong central government. Since occupying the country at the end of 2001, the United States has introduced representative government but has made minimal progress in controlling Afghanistan’s drug traffic. At the beginning of 2005, it remained to be seen whether the Karzai regime, with Washington’s continuing support and encouragement, would survive in a political climate rife with insurgents and warlords. The geography of the country provides a daunting impediment to the establishment of a strong central government, and Afghanistan’s situation in southwest Asia, which is among the most troubled areas in the world, seemed tenuous at best.

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