Looking Back: A Year After Taliban Regains Control in Afghanistan

In August of 2021, twenty years after the US-led-invasion ousted them from power, the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. In Us Versus Them: The United States, Radical Islam, and the Rise of the Green Threat, Second Edition acclaimed historian of U.S.–Middle East foreign relations, Douglas Little, examines how American presidents, policy makers, and diplomats dealt with the rise of Islamic extremism in the modern era. This edition includes a new afterword that carries the story through the Trump administration and into the Biden presidency, focusing particularly on Afghanistan.

The following is an excerpt from the afterword of the second edition, forthcoming September 2022, but available for pre-order now. Use code 01DAH40 at checkout for 40% off.

Midnight in the Graveyard of Empires

At 12:02 a.m. on 30 August 2021, five U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemasters rumbled down the runway at Kabul International Airport and soared into the midnight sky loaded with Humvees, tanks, and a thousand commandos from the 82nd Airborne, the last American combatants to fight in the “forever war” in Afghanistan. Lieutenant Colonel Braden Coleman, who piloted MOOSE92, the final Globemaster to lift off, was stunned by the scene on the tarmac. “It just looked apocalyptic,” Coleman winced after ferrying his payload to safety in Kuwait. “It looked like one of those zombie movies where all the airplanes had been destroyed, their doors were open, the wheels were broken.” While MOOSE92 was disappearing high into the Afghan darkness, bursts of gunfire crackled through the ruined airport as hundreds of Taliban fighters celebrated the triumph of their Islamist insurgency. “I especially came here at midnight to watch the last soldier leaving our country,” Mujahid Rahmanin, a Taliban commander from Ghazni Province, told reporters. “My father defeated the Russian power, and I’m part of the Taliban defeating U.S. forces in [the] Graveyard of world empires.” He did not mince words: “We Taliban won the war. USA and NATO, you lost the war. Don’t come back and even look back to the yard of freedom lovers.” Lest U.S. policy makers miss his message, Rahmanin offered one final piece of advice: “Don’t intervene anymore, anywhere in the Islamic world.” 

Twenty years after their regime in Kabul was crushed by overwhelming American air power in the opening round of George W. Bush’s “global war on terror,” the resurgent Taliban delivered a “surprise ending” that anyone who has seen The Night of the Living Dead could easily have predicted. Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration had moved swiftly to combat the Green Threat of radical Islam by expelling Osama bin Laden from his safe haven in the Afghan Hindu Kush, deposing his Taliban hosts, and installing a fragile American-backed government in December 2001 led by Hamid Karzai, an enigmatic English speaker who soon proved more popular in Washington than Kabul. Before long, Dubya turned his attention to toppling Saddam Hussein and the Pentagon scaled back U.S. military operations in Afghanistan in order to focus on the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

“It just looked apocalyptic,” Coleman winced after ferrying his payload to safety in Kuwait. “It looked like one of those zombie movies where all the airplanes had been destroyed, their doors were open, the wheels were broken.”

Three years later, while most eyes were riveted on the 160,000 GIs trapped in a gruesome quagmire on the Euphrates, another 25,000 battled Afghan guerrillas 1,500 miles to the east in Helmand and Ghazni Provinces. During Dubya’s second term, the Karzai regime had morphed into a feckless kleptocracy, enabling the Taliban to reconstitute themselves in zombielike fashion. Determined to stabilize the situation, Barack Obama sent 60,000 more GIs to Kabul during his first term. The Taliban, however, refused to back down. Faced with a bloody stalemate, Obama decided to reduce America’s military footprint. By the time he turned the Oval Office over to his successor, just 14,500 boots were on the ground in Afghanistan.

Among Donald Trump’s most memorable campaign promises in 2016 were his pledges to end the “loser war” in Afghanistan and to bomb America’s Islamic enemies to smithereens. The three chief ingredients in his approach to the Muslim world—ignorance, impatience, and Islamophobia—did not bode well for American success. Trump entered office more likely to recognize Bahari Ibaadat, Miss Afghanistan 2014, than Ashraf Ghani, who had succeeded Hamid Karzai as Afghan president that same year. He regarded detailed briefings about the Taliban and other radical Islamic groups as a complete waste of time and preferred to make snap decisions, almost always shooting first and asking questions later. Even more troubling, President Trump invited many notorious Islamophobes into his inner circle, including White House spin doctor Stephen Miller, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser John Bolton. 

Douglas Little is professor of history at Clark University. He is the author of American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945.