Historical look back at Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Ms. Shannon Murphy
  • 932nd Airlift Wing

Like so many of you, I woke up this week (August 15-18) reading the news, a horror and sadness settling into my stomach. Kabul has fallen to Taliban forces. Afghans fleeing for their lives, a resurge of terror and violence. Afghan interpreters to U.S. and Coalition forces, immediately targeted by the Taliban, desperately trying to flee the country with their families.

Pictures and stories comparing Kabul 2021 to Saigon 1975. Our generation’s Vietnam, just weeks away from marking 20 years since 9.11.

All of that reality, just to come to the only question that matters – what was it all for? Why did we spend 20 years in a “Forever War” just to see an entire country buckle in a matter of weeks?

For those who paid the Ultimate Sacrifice – what did they die for?

Emotionally, this is hard to grapple with. Historically, this writing has been on the wall for a very long time. And it is through this lens that I offer some context, to show that while the U.S. and Coalition forces did indeed rid the Taliban from Afghanistan, helped stabilize the diplomatic relations and strengthen community relations, we also entered a country fraught with decades of violence and corruption. As Military History Quarterly states, “The United States was the latest of many invaders caught in an Afghan quagmire.” (1)

Arab Muslims sought to bring Islam to the Afghan tribes, enduring Genghis Khan’s Mongol forces as they swept across Central Asia. In 1504, the Afghan region fell under the Mughals of northern India for two centuries, until indigenous Pashtuns, known as the Durrani, began nominal rule in Afghanistan lasing until 1978. Ahmad Shah, the first Durrani ruler, is known as the founder of the Afghan nation. He expanded the empire to Delhi and the Arabian Sea and united the Pashtun tribes. (2)

In the 1800s, Russia and Britain entangled themselves in what is now dubbed “the Great Game,” with Afghanistan stuck in the literal and figurative middle. Russia looking to expand to the south, Britain looking to protect India. Afghanistan was able to maintain “virtual” independence, but there were forced compromises. The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) saw the beginnings of modern conflicts with Afghanistan. When the British secured the Durand Line (international land border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) in 1893, this divided Afghanistan from British colonial territory to the southeast, “sowing the seeds of future tensions over the division of Pashtun tribes.” (2)

After World War II, the long-divided Pashtun tribes caused tension with Pakistan. Because of this, “Afghanistan shifted its foreign policy toward the Soviet Union.” In 1964, a new constitution somewhat liberalized the constitutional monarchy, but when political and economic conditions worsened, the king (who reigned for 40 years) was ousted, and a republic was established. When the ouster did not improve conditions, communist factions replaced him in 1978. Tribal Insurgents against the communist government in 1979 pushed the Soviet Union to invade with 80,000 troops, thus entering into a decade-long guerilla war. (2)

Two Soviet-sponsored regimes failed to defeat the loose federation of mujahideen guerrillas (supported by the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) that opposed the occupation. In 1988, the Soviet Union agreed to create a neutral Afghan state. “The agreement ended a war that killed thousands, devastated industry and agriculture, and created 5 to 6 million refugees.” (2)

The conflict between the government and the mujahideen continued, and civil war broke out in 1992. The one group to emerge and grasp control of most of Afghanistan in 1996 was the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group. “The Taliban used an extremist interpretation of Islam to asset repressive control of society. The economy remained in ruins, and most government services ceased.” (2)

“The Taliban granted the Arab terrorist group organization al Qaeda the right to use Afghanistan as a base. As al Qaeda committed a series of international terrorist acts culminating in attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Taliban rejected international pressure to surrender al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. When the United States and allies attacked Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, the Taliban government collapsed, but Taliban and al Qaeda leaders escaped. A United States-led International Security Assistance Force began an occupation…” (2)

When we face the hard question of what was it all for – we can look at ourselves as Americans and honestly say that we tried to help a country who has struggled to help themselves. We did our jobs to the best of our ability, working with locals, assisting governmental, diplomatic, and military figures. We brought healthcare, education, and security to a region that has been tumultuous and lacking in basic services for most of its history. We learned about their country and worked with their national forces and interpreters to better serve the local populations. Their losses are ours. Our fallen comrades are held close in our hearts, our units, and our communities. Our relationships we have made in Afghanistan, with our coalition partners and our local Afghans are worth fighting for.


  1. Jon Guttman, “Operation Enduring Freedom: The War in Afghanistan in Photos,” HistoryNet, September 2021, https://www.historynet.com/afghanistan-images.htm.   
  2. “History of Afghanistan,” One World Nations Online, https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/History/Afghanistan-history.htm (accessed 16 Aug 2021).