By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 11, 2009 - On this eighth anniversary of the worst attacks on U.S. soil in nearly 200 years, and with some Americans skeptical of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, it is helpful to remember how the U.S. military commitment there evolved. Asked by reporters at a Sept. 3 press briefing about the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was unequivocal: "I absolutely do not think it is time to get out of Afghanistan."
"The fact is that 9/11 represented the first foreign-based attack on the continental United States, with significant casualties, since the War of 1812," Gates said. "That attack emanated from Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The Taliban did not just provide a safe haven for al-Qaida. They actively cooperated and collaborated with al-Qaida. They provided a worldwide base of operations for al-Qaida."
If some Americans have forgotten the connection between Afghanistan's dusty terrorist training camps and the tragedy that was 9/11, the connection is not lost on the countless servicemembers who say they enlisted because of the terrorist attacks. It also isn't lost on those servicemembers, mostly Special Operations forces, who arrived first in Afghanistan.
Among those early U.S. servicemembers in the Afghan theater, one group stands out. On Dec. 2, 2001, soldiers with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) raised the American flag at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. It was the culminating moment in a whirlwind campaign that toppled the Taliban and sent al-Qaida terrorists scurrying for their lives.
The Green Berets placed rubble from the Twin Towers at the flagpole. Later, they placed a plaque at the site, which says: "In honor of the victims of 11 September 2001, the men and women who have given their lives in the war against terrorism, and the enduring freedom that will survive."
The soldiers understood that the reason they were in Afghanistan was because of terrorists in that country who killed 3,000 American men, women and children back home. The terrorists used the ungoverned areas of Afghanistan to plan, stage, train for and finance the 9/11 attacks.
Rise of the Taliban
Intricately tied to the terrorism in Afghanistan is the country's abject poverty and lack of resources. It became apparent early on that it was going to take more than military power to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban. Afghanistan needed government institutions and economic help to wrestle control – and hold it – from extremists.
A crossroads between Central and South Asia, Afghanistan has few resources. Thirty years of war devastated the economy and government. The Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979, and set up a puppet communist government. The United States helped the Afghan mujaheddin in their fight against the Soviets. The Soviets admitted defeat and the last Soviet soldier left in 1989.
After the Soviet retreat, the United States lost interest in the region and turned elsewhere. The struggle among rival warlords devastated the nation even more than the Soviet occupation. All government institutions died, and generations of Afghans came of age with no idea how a government should work. With an average per capita income of $300 per year, Afghans had become desperate.
While the warlords fought each other, the Taliban took control, initially gained favor among Afghans by efforts to suppress local warring factions and to stamp out corruption.
At the same time, the Taliban imposed an extreme interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, imposing public executions and amputations. It became illegal for girls to be educated, for women to work outside the home, or to even leave their homes without being fully covered in a burka and with a male family member. It was illegal to watch TV programs not cleared by the Taliban, listen to music, dance or sing. Ancient art and artifacts were destroyed.
Driving Out Terrorists
The Taliban-ruled Afghanistan sheltered Osama bin Laden, the man at the center of the attacks. Following 9/11, the United States made no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbored them. The United States gave the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan time to turn over the terrorists, close the terrorist training camps and open the camps to United Nations inspection. They did not.
On Oct. 7, 2001, the United States struck back at the terrorists. Air Force and Navy aircraft struck at al-Qaida and Taliban targets throughout Afghanistan. Later in the month, U.S. special operations forces joined with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and used U.S. airpower to rout the Taliban. A small number of Americans using 21st century technology, but riding on horses, made the difference.
While driven from power, al-Qaida was not eliminated. They looked for other havens and the Taliban exploited the border with Pakistan as a bolt-hole. The United States began building an international coalition to confront the terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Information gleaned in the country led to terrorist arrests in Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Building Toward Peace
In 2001, there was no functioning government at any level in the nation. Agriculture is the major industry, but much of it has been in the form of illegal poppy crops, which produce much of the world's heroin and funds terrorist networks.
The road network has been improved by international forces, but remains largely broken and is still non-existent in many areas. One U.S. patrol in the early days, followed what they thought was a road, only to discover it was a dry river bed. The soldiers considered the river bed, by far, the best "road" they had seen in the country.
The United States and its allies introduced the idea of provincial reconstruction teams to Afghanistan to try to stimulate governance and economic progress. A combination of military and civilians now make up 26 teams that work with local governments and village elders to build roads, bridges, schools, government buildings and anything to stimulate the economy, often using local contractors.
NATO, too, has emerged as a force in Afghanistan. In 2003, NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force established by the United Nations the year before.
Originally limited to Kabul and its environs, ISAF now commands security forces throughout the country. The force started with 5,000 and now number 64,500. There are 42 nations contributing forces to the effort, with the United States being the largest contributor with 30,000. There are 9,000 British soldiers in Afghanistan. Other leading contributors are Germany, Canada, France, Australia and Poland.
Switching Gears to Iraq and Back Again
Defense officials admitted that once Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, Afghanistan became a secondary theater. "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq we do what we must," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in December 2007.
The focus on Iraq allowed the Taliban to regroup and mis-steps by Pakistan allowed the extremist group to find sanctuary there. Conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated, and a new strategy put in place in March aims to reverse the decline.
The new strategy calls for a regional approach to include Pakistan, and increased training for Afghan security forces. There are more American and NATO troops in country heading into areas that were Taliban strongholds. The forces hold areas and stop Taliban re-infiltration, allowing localities to flourish in peace.
Military leaders have said that Afghanistan will be a long, tough fight. There are numerous obstacles to peace in the nation, including widespread illiteracy, tribal and ethnic divisions, a lack of infrastructure and corruption. Lack of money is a problem. In comparison to Iraq, which has a similar population and a national budget of about $66 billion per year, Afghanistan's budget is about $600 million.
But despite the difficult road ahead, it is not hard to understand the secretary's conviction as Americans recall the devastation of eight years ago today.
(American Forces Press Service writer Lisa Daniel contributed to this story).