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Presidents and Afghanistan

In April of this year, President Joe Biden announced his administration's goal of completing the withdrawal of all United States troops in Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. The withdrawal took a significant step on July 5, 2021 when U.S. troops left Bagram airfield without telling the base’s new Afghan commander. Concerns were raised about retaliation by the Taliban, but on August 10, 2021, the White House stated that a Taliban takeover was "not inevitable" despite the rapid withdrawal of US troops from the country. Five days later on August 15thm the Afghanistan government collapsed as Taliban forces took over Kabul.

This triggered an attempted mass exit from the country by those who had been supportive of US forces. On August 26, 2021, two suicide bombings occurred outside the Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans were attempting to flee the country following the Taliban’s takeover. The bombings killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers who remained in the country to assist in the exodus. The extremist group ISIS-K, the affiliate of the terror group ISIS, (who use the “K” to reference an old name for Afghanistan, Khorasan) claimed responsibility for the explosions. This was the deadliest day for American troops in the country since 2011. In a speech from the White House that evening, President Joe Biden stated that the United States intended to stay the course on the scheduled August 31 withdrawal date for US troops, but he vowed to retaliate against the perpetrators of the attack, telling the nation: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down to make you pay.”

The final contingent of U.S. troops left from Kabul Airport on August 30, 2021, but some Americans were unable to leave. The State Department has said that these persons will have to rely on “diplomatic channels” to exit the country.

For years Afghanistan has posed a perplexing problem for US Presidents as well as for leaders of other nations. For centuries Afghanistan has been a place of strategic importance in world affairs. In the late 19th century, Afghanistan served as a buffer state between British India and the Russian Empire. Its border with British India was created in 1893 but the Afghan government has had strained relations with Pakistan since Pakistani independence in 1947. After the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, Afghanistan was free of foreign influence for decades. It become a monarchy under King Amanullah. Fifty years later Zahir Shah was overthrown and a republic was established. In 1978, after a second coup Afghanistan became a socialist state and then a Soviet Union protectorate. This evoked the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s. By 1996 most of Afghanistan was captured by the Islamic fundamentalist group the Taliban, who ruled most of the country as a totalitarian regime for over five years. The Taliban were forcibly removed by the NATO-led coalition, and a new democratically-elected government political structure was formed.

The first known contact between Afghanistan and the United States occurred in the 1830s when Josiah Harlan, an American adventurer from Philadelphia traveled to the the region with intentions of becoming the King of Afghanistan. The British Indian army invaded Afghanistan, during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–1842) at a time when Afghan kings Shuja Shah Durrani and Dost Mohammad Khan were fighting for the throne of the Durrani Empire. Harlan became involved in Afghani factional military actions. He was named Prince of Ghor in exchange for military aid. In the war, the British-Indian forces were defeated. They made a complete withdrawal from the region a few years later. Harlan is believed to have left Afghanistan around the same period, eventually returning to the United States.

In 1911, A.C. Jewett arrived in Afghanistan to build a hydroelectric plant near Kabul. He became the Chief Engineer for King Habibullah Khan. He is believed to be the second American known to live and work in Afghanistan. A decade later, in January 1921, the Treaty of Rawalpindi was signed between Afghanistan and colonial British India, and the Afghan mission contacted the United States to establish diplomatic relations. Upon their return to Kabul, the envoys brought greetings from President Warren G. Harding. After the establishment of diplomatic relations, American aid helped Afghanistan to raise its standard of living. Residing in Tehran, William Harrison Hornibrook served as a non-resident US Envoy (Minister Plenipotentiary) to Afghanistan from 1935 to 1936. Louis Goethe Dreyfus served in that role from 1940 to 1942, and in June of 1942 the Kabul Legation was opened. Major Gordon Enders was appointed the first military attaché to Kabul and Cornelius Van Hemert Engert represented the U.S. Legation from 1942 to 1945 followed by Ely Eliot Palmer from 1945 to 1948. Afghanistan remained neutral during the Second World War and also maintained diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany during the war.

Afghan-American relations were important during the Cold War. Prince Mohammed Naim, King Zahir Shah's cousin, became the Chargé d'affaires in Washington, D.C. and President Harry S. Truman determined that a strong friendship between the two countries had to be maintained. Truman directed the exchange of senior diplomats in each capital. The first official Afghanistan Ambassador to the United States was Habibullah Khan Tarzi, who served until 1953. The U.S. Kabul Legation became the U.S. Embassy Kabul on May 6, 1948. Louis Goethe Dreyfus, who previously served as Minister Plenipotentiary, became the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 1949 to 1951. In 1953, Vice-President Richard Nixon made an official diplomatic visit to Kabul. He also took a short tour around the city and met with local Afghans.

In 1958, Prime Minister Daoud Khan became the first Afghan to speak before the United States Congress in Washington, DC. He spoke about the importance of US-Afghan relations. Daoud met with President Dwight Eisenhower, signed an important cultural exchange agreement, and traveled around the United States visiting the New York Stock Exchange, the Empire State Building, hydroelectric facilities at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and other sites. Eisenhower declined Afghanistan's request for defense cooperation, but he approved an economic assistance program for the development of Afghanistan's physical infrastructure, roads, dams, and power plants. Contacts between the United States and Afghanistan increased, especially during the Cuban Revolution when the Soviet Union was supporting Cuba's Fidel Castro. The United States focused on Afghanistan for its strategic purposes with the goal of countering the spread of communism and the strength of the Soviet Union into South Asia.

Eisenhower made a state visit to Afghanistan in December 1959. He met with King Zahir Shah, Prime Minister Daoud and a number of high-ranking government officials. He also took toured Kabul. From the 1950s to 1979, U.S. foreign assistance provided Afghanistan with more than $500 million in loans, grants, and surplus agricultural commodities to develop transportation facilities, increase agricultural production, expand the educational system, stimulate industry, and improve government administration. In 1963, King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan made a special state visit to the United States where he met with President John F. Kennedy. The King toured parts of the United States, visiting Disneyland in California, New York City and other places. Habibullah Karzai, uncle of Hamid Karzai served as representative of Afghanistan at the United Nations.

In 1970 Vice President Spiro Agnew made a visit to Kabul, accompanied by Apollo 10 astronauts Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan as part of an eleven-nation tour of Asia. At a formal dinner hosted by the Royal Family, the American delegation presented the King with a piece of lunar rock, a small Afghan flag carried on the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, and photographs of Afghanistan taken from space. The Peace Corps was active in Afghanistan between 1962 and 1979. During this time many other American programs were operating in Afghanistan such as CARE, American Scouting overseas, and USAID.

A 1973 coup had brought a pro-Western government into power in Afghanistan but five years later, Communists under the leadership of Nur Muhammad Taraki seized power. The new regime signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union in December 1978. Taraki's oppresionist regime made efforts to redistribute land. He ordered mass executions and took other politically oppression actions. This led to a revolt by mujahideen rebels. Following a general uprising in April 1979, Taraki was deposed by Khalq rival Hafizullah Amin in September. After the April 1978 Saur Revolution, relations between the United States and Afghanistan deteriorated even more. In February 1979, U.S. Ambassador Adolph "Spike" Dubs was kidnapped in Kabul. He was murdered after Afghan security forces burst in on his kidnappers. The U.S. then reduced its assistance and terminated its military training program.

Soviet leaders feared that an Islamist government in Afghanistan would destabilize the region. They deployed 30,000 soldiers to the Soviet–Afghan border. President Jimmy Carter began sending aid to the mujahideen rebels in early 1979. By December, Amin's government had lost control of much of the country, prompting the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan, execute Amin, and install Parcham leader Babrak Karmal as president. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caught Carter by surprise. Carter believed that the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan would present a grave threat to the Persian Gulf region. In a televised speech, Carter announced sanctions on the Soviet Union, promised renewed aid to Pakistan. In cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Carter increased aid to the mujahideen through the CIA's Operation Cyclone. Carter also later announced a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to an increase in the defense budget, leading to a new arms race with the Soviet Union. U.S. support for the mujahideen would accelerate under Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, at a final cost to U.S. taxpayers of some $3 billion. The Soviets were unable to quell the insurgency and withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, a prequel to the breakup of the Soviet Union itself.

Terrorism became an increasingly important national security issue during Clinton's administration. In the closing years of the Soviet–Afghan War, Osama bin Laden had organized al-Qaeda, a militant Sunni organization. Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were resentful of the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda grew during the 1990s and engaged in terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. The group claimed responsibility for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and the bombing of a U.S. ship at port in Yemen. In retaliation, Clinton ordered the bombing of al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. The Central Intelligence Agency and the military tracked bin Laden's movements in an attempt to capture or kill him, but Bin Laden evaded capture or death within the mountainous and hostile country of Afghanistan.

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and flew two them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, destroying both 110-story skyscrapers. Another plane crashed into Pentagon. The fourth plane was brought down in Pennsylvania following a struggle between the terrorists and the aircraft's passengers. Appearing on national television on the night of the attacks, President George W. Bush promised to punish those who had aided the attacks, stating, "we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." He declared a "War on Terror", instituting new domestic and foreign policies in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks.

After 9/11, the Bush administration planned military action to punish the government of Afghanistan, which harbored the leaders of al-Qaeda. Bush decided to lead an invasion of Afghanistan, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the conservative Taliban government. On September 14, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of military force against those responsible for the attacks. On October 7, 2001 Bush authorized the invasion of Afghanistan.

General Tommy Franks, the commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), drew up a four-phase invasion plan. The first phase involved the U.S. build up of forces in the surrounding area and coordination with the Northern Alliance, an Afghan resistance group opposed to the Taliban. The second phase consisted of a major air campaign against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. The third phase involved the defeat of the remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. The fourth and final phase consisted of the stabilization of Afghanistan, which Franks projected would take three to five years.

The war in Afghanistan began on October 7 with several air and missile strikes. On October 19, the Northern Alliance began its offensive, and the capital of Kabul was captured on November 13. Hamid Karzai was inaugurated as the new president of Afghanistan. The senior leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, including bin Laden, avoided capture. Karzai remained in power for the duration of Bush's presidency, but his effective control was limited to the area around Kabul. Various warlords took control of much of the rest of the country. The Taliban regrouped in neighboring Pakistan.

The United States took the leading role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, providing billions of dollars to the Afghan National Security Forces, building national roads, government and educational institutions. In 2005, the United States and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement committing both nations to a long-term relationship. On March 1, 2006, President George W. Bush along with his wife Laura made a visit to Afghanistan where they greeted US soldiers, met with Afghan officials and later appeared at a special inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Embassy.

President Barack Obama increased the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan during his first term. In his second term he withdred most military personnel. On taking office, Obama announced that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be bolstered by 17,000 new troops by the summer of 2009, in addition to the roughly 30,000 soldiers already in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Michael Mullen all argued for further troops, and Obama dispatched additional soldiers after a lengthy review process. The number of American soldiers in Afghanistan reached its peak at 100,000 in 2010. In 2012, the U.S. and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement in which the U.S. agreed to hand over major combat operation to Afghan forces. That same year, the Obama administration designated Afghanistan as a major non-NATO ally.

Afghan President Karzai came under fire in 2009 from the Obama administration for his unwillingness to crack down on government corruption. After winning the 2009 presidential election Karzai vowed to tackle the problem. He stated that "individuals who are involved in corruption will have no place in the government.

In 2014, Obama announced that most troops would leave Afghanistan by late 2016, with a small force remaining at the US embassy. In September 2014, Ashraf Ghani succeeded Hamid Karzai as the President of Afghanistan. On January 1, 2015, the U.S. military ended Operation Enduring Freedom and began Resolute Support Mission, in which the U.S. shifted to more of a training role. In October 2015, Obama announced that U.S. soldiers would remain in Afghanistan indefinitely in order to support the Afghan government in the civil war against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIL. President Obama left office with roughly 8,400 U.S. soldiers remaining in Afghanistan.

On August 21, 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he would expand the American presence in Afghanistan, without giving details on any timelines, troop numbers or specific goals. He said that a US withdrawal was not an option as it would play into the hands of terrorists. He said that publicising deadlines and exact plans would only help those groups prepare. He added that 20 US designated terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan. Afghani government officials support the new strategy. They consider Pakistan as a main sponsor of the insurgency. Trump has said, "we can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond". The Afghan president has said that "the strategy is made in accordance with realities on the ground. This is the first time the US government is coming with a very clear-cut message to Pakistan to either stop what you're doing or face the negative consequences."

On September 19. 2017, the Trump Administration deployed another 3,000 US troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to approximately 14,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan. Fighting against ISIL and Taliban forces has continued through 2018 until this month's withdrawal of US troops by the Biden administration.

The problem of bringing about peace in Afghanistan is one that will remain on the President's desk for many years to come.
Tags: barack obama, bill clinton, donald trump, dwight d. eisenhower, george w. bush, harry s. truman, jimmy carter, joe biden, john f. kennedy, richard nixon, ronald reagan, spiro agnew, warren harding

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