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For Invaders, A Well-Worn Path Out Of Afghanistan

Soldiers from  the Army's 101st Airborne Division walk along high mud walls in a village in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. The Obama administration later this month will release its annual review of the war strategy. Afghanistan's history does not offer encouragement.
David Gilkey/NPR
Soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division walk along high mud walls in a village in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. The Obama administration later this month will release its annual review of the war strategy. Afghanistan's history does not offer encouragement.

Editor's note: As the administration this month completes a major review of its war strategy and its attempts to promote good governance in Afghanistan, NPR has prepared a series of reports looking back at the history of the country and U.S. efforts there. Correspondents Quil Lawrence and Jackie Northam examine Afghanistan, past and present, this week with on-air reports on All Things Considered, Web dispatches and images.

As 2011 approaches, things look a lot different for the U.S. in Afghanistan than they did back in 2001.

All foreign forces invading must learn it's easy to enter Afghanistan. It's very difficult to leave Afghanistan.

The initial military mission of ousting the Taliban leadership that had harbored al-Qaida was achieved within weeks. But despite nine subsequent years of effort and billions of dollars in support, the U.S. has been unable to establish security or a strong central government.

The Taliban reasserted its control over some areas. Over the past year, the Obama administration has greatly increased the number of military and civilian personnel on the ground in Afghanistan.

Many observers remain pessimistic about the administration strategy. History does not offer encouragement. What do the armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States all have in common? They all shed blood and tears in the indomitable mountains of Afghanistan.

'Graveyard Of Empires'

For centuries, Afghanistan was part of the "Silk Road," connecting trade between East Asia and Europe. In the 19th century, it became a major staging ground for the "great game" played by Britain and Russia, who essentially fought three proxy wars for influence in the region.

The British took control of the country in the 1830s, seeking to turn Afghanistan from a crossroads to a roadblock for other nations. They put in place a hand-picked monarch named Shah Shoojah. But Shoojah's collaboration with non-Muslim occupiers earned him the hatred of many Afghans.

Shoojah had no control outside Kabul, the capital – leading many Afghan historians to compare him to current President Hamid Karzai. An uprising against Shoojah led to the first of two disastrous Anglo-Afghan wars.

Disastrous for the British, that is. A massacre of retreating British troops in 1842 remains a point of national pride in Afghanistan.

"Pretty much every time I see President Karzai, there's some reference to that piece of British history, or another piece of British history," says Mark Sedwill, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan and now the top NATO official there.

Prince Ali Seraj, cousin to the last king of Afghanistan, says the powers in London sought Afghanistan as a buffer state for the British Empire. Instead, Britain got caught in its own trap.

The Soviets' Bleeding Wound

Afghanistan gained its independence in 1919. A modernizing king named Amanullah Khan tried to update Afghan society too quickly, and rural Afghans rebelled — just as they would 60 years later, when the Soviet Union invaded.

In 1978, a communist coup installed a pro-Soviet president, and the tribes rose up, prompting a massive Soviet military occupation.

Over the course of the Soviet era, which lasted from 1980 to 1989, the State Department estimates that the U.S. sent a total of about $3 billion in economic and covert military aid to the mujahedeen, or holy warriors of the Afghan resistance group.

Russian fighter jets and helicopters used Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, to launch attacks against guerrillas who countered with deadly ambushes. The same base is used today by U.S. forces and was visited by President Obama in his quick trip to Afghanistan last week.

Afghanistan became a "bleeding wound" for the Soviets, as President Mikhail Gorbachev said in 1986. He decided to pull his country's troops out, a process that took another three years.

"All foreign forces invading must learn it's easy to enter Afghanistan," Seraj says. "It's very difficult to leave Afghanistan."

Rise Of The Taliban

The U.S. has since been criticized for neglecting Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out. Their retreat did not end the fighting.

The mujahedeen failed to unite or govern the country, with civil war continuing between Pashtun fundamentalists, Tajik commanders, ethnic Hazara warlords, Uzbek generals and other factions.

The capital lay in ruins, and warlords governing various sections of the country engaged in severe human rights abuses.

In Kabul, militias that had fought side by side against the Soviets now bombarded each other without regard to civilian casualties and laying waste to the city's Aliabad Hospital.

Similar chaos engulfed the southern city of Kandahar. When gunmen at a militia checkpoint outside the city began raping women, locals sought out a former mujahedeen commander named Mullah Mohammed Omar and a movement was born, says Waheed Muzdah, a former official in the Taliban government.

Omar, with Islamic clerics and students, formed the Taliban. They took control of the country in 1996.

At first, they were viewed by some in the international community as a force for order. But their harsh rule, symbolized by public executions in a soccer stadium, turned them into pariahs.

Their fundamental interpretation of religion prevented women from seeking education or even venturing out of their homes. Ethnic Hazaras, who are Shiite Muslims, were massacred by the thousands in areas like Bamiyan and Mazar-e-Sharif.

9/11 And The Installation Of Karzai

The Taliban's cozy relationship with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida made it a target for the U.S. and allied nations after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Qaida was based in Afghanistan and had supported the Taliban financially.

The Western military effort succeeded quickly and appeared to be smooth, with the U.S. offering air support to the Northern Alliance, an Afghan faction opposed to the Taliban.

Northern Alliance leaders were persuaded to cede power to Hamid Karzai, the leader of a powerful Pashtun tribe, who was backed by the U.S. and chosen as head of an interim government by various Afghan factions at a December 2001 meeting in Bonn, Germany.

His hold on power — or at least his office — has since been solidified by elections that were tainted by fraud.

At first, Karzai seemed to be carefully pushing the warlords out of his government and sought to demobilize their militias. But not much time passed before he brought the warlords — many of them former mujahedeen figures — into his government.

Karzai became the target of several assassination attempts. His control over the rest of the country grew so tenuous — and his appearances outside Kabul became so infrequent — that he has been described derisively as the "Mayor of Kabul."

"If you ask the ask the average Afghan what they think about Karzai, the first thing they would tell you is he has not proved to be a very strong leader," says Masood Farivar, general manager of Salam Watander radio, Afghanistan's national network.

"And with Afghanistan, after three decades of war, what was needed was a strong leader to unify the country," he says.

A 'Downward Spiral'

Karzai has proven to be a problematic ally for the U.S., with his administration widely accused of corruption and mismanagement. Karzai, in turn, has criticized U.S. strategy and methods with increasing frequency in recent months.

Diplomats who have encountered him and others who know him say Karzai has a conspiratorial streak, can be emotional and lashes out when he feels he is being criticized.

For its part, after the Taliban fell so rapidly, the U.S. under the Bush administration shifted its attention and resources to Iraq after the 2003 invasion of that country.

Osama bin Laden and his minions were able to escape into Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban were able to regroup and become a renewed power in Afghanistan.

By 2008, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the country was in a "downward spiral." Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I'm not sure we're winning in Afghanistan."

Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, admits he has wondered whether the country would have been stabilized if the U.S. had committed more resources to it several years ago.

"Having served in this country for so long, yeah, I do look back at times, ask the question: Had we done things differently, had we put more on the ground, would we be where we are right now?" Eikenberry tells NPR.

But Eikenberry insists that now is not the time "to take the rear-view mirror" view.

Prince Ali Seraj at a British war cemetery in Kabul.
Quil Lawrence/NPR /
Prince Ali Seraj at a British war cemetery in Kabul.

Seeking A Winning Strategy

A year ago, President Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, committing 30,000 additional troops to the effort. Those were on top of a 21,000-troop increase he'd announced shortly after taking office, bringing total U.S. force levels above 100,000.

Obama's strategy calls for the beginning of troop withdrawals in July 2011.

In recent weeks, the administration said it will maintain a major military presence in Afghanistan until 2014 — more than a dozen years after the initial invasion.

Americans pushed out the Taliban and al-Qaida easily in 2001 because Afghans welcomed them, says Prince Ali Seraj.

But that welcome, he says, is wearing thin.

"Eight years down the road, they're beginning to look at NATO as invading forces," he says. "That's because the people have been disregarded. This is why we are not succeeding."

A war begun in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks under President George W. Bush is now Obama's war.

Obama and his generals are arguing that the more engaged and aggressive strategy put in place a year ago needs more time to succeed. In recent weeks, the administration has laid out a new timetable, which calls for a continuing Western military presence in Afghanistan until 2014.

In an interview with ABC on Monday, Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Afghanistan, refused to say that he is "confident" that the Afghan army will be prepared to take over control by 2014.

Obama struck an optimistic note during his surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday. "Because of you," he told troops gathered at Bagram Air Base, "I know that once again we will prevail."

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Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering national security and veterans' issues nationwide. Previously he was NPR's Bureau Chief in Kabul and Baghdad.
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