September 10, 2020

Status of U.S. Operations in Afghanistan


  • The U.S. signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 providing a pathway for peace in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban and the Afghan government took steps to hold peace talks beginning on September 12, a process set forth by the February agreement.
  • Congress continues to play an important role in the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, and the Senate has overwhelmingly opposed any precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. 

The United States’ current engagement in Afghanistan spans almost two decades, beginning the month after the September 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. operations focused on striking al-Qaida and their host in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime, a group with an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam and tribal roots in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The war has moved from combat operations through several distinct phases, and the Trump administration now emphasizes withdrawing U.S. troops with some assurance that the country does not continue to harbor terrorists.

Brief History of the conflict 

Over the past 19 years, the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has arguably moved through four distinct phases, depending on conditions in the country and the administration in the White House.

Phases of the Afghan Conflict

Phases of Afghan Conflict

Topple the Taliban: 2001-2002

At first, U.S. combat operations during the Bush administration in Afghanistan were aimed at al-Qaida, with a second goal of overturning the Taliban government that harbored the group. The strategy included enlisting the help of local militias opposed to the Taliban. These forces, combined with U.S. special forces and airpower, quickly removed the Taliban government and helped install a democratic government in Kabul.

Reconstruction: 2002-2009

In April 2002, President Bush announced the U.S. was shifting its approach to post-Taliban Afghanistan reconstruction. This phase focused on building a stable democratic government, fighting political corruption, advancing human rights, and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. The Taliban also regrouped during this period and began a sustained insurgency against the Afghan government and its international partners.

Troop Surge and Counterinsurgency: 2009-2017

As the Obama administration took office, violence was escalating in the country, and the Taliban and other groups like the Haqqani network operated in relative safety in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. approach began to focus on counterinsurgency and featured a massive increase in troops, peaking at 100,000 in 2011.

President Obama accompanied his troop surge with an announcement that he planned to withdraw U.S. forces from the country beginning in 2011. That withdrawal plan met criticism that it was not tied to conditions on the ground or security guarantees that protected the U.S. homeland. He delayed the withdrawal several times before reversing course and deciding to leave a residual force of U.S. troops. By the time President Obama left office, the Taliban had reportedly been rolled back but still controlled important territory in the country, and a local Islamic State affiliate created an additional security challenge.

South Asia Strategy: 2017-Today

In August 2017, President Trump announced a policy he called the South Asia Strategy. Its goal is to deny terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan and base troop withdrawals on conditions in the field and U.S. security. As part of this strategy, the president pressured Pakistan to crack down on militant activities in its border regions with Afghanistan. In 2018, the U.S. began direct negotiations with the Taliban for the first time, leading to a February 2020 agreement that lays out a pathway to full U.S. military withdrawal. The Taliban remains the most significant and sustained opposition to a stable Afghanistan but arguably does not pose a direct threat to U.S. security.

Current State Of the Conflict

Under the terms of the February deal, the U.S. is to withdraw troops in exchange for security commitments from the Taliban aimed at keeping terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan. The Afghan government was not a signatory to the agreement, but the deal paved the way for peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government after a planned prisoner exchange. Some observers worry that the Taliban will not live up to its counterterrorism commitments; a recent U.N. report on the continuing relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida reinforced this concern.

In June, the New York Times reported on intelligence that Russia had offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops. Other media reports made similar claims of bounties offered by Iran. General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, said, “I think philosophically, both Russia and Iran, they don't mean us well in Afghanistan. Can I link them to specific events, specific payments, a specific attack? Not really at this time. We continue to look at that and I look at it very hard, quite frequently.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban will begin on September 12 in Doha, Qatar, after a long delay. The talks have faced significant challenges over prisoner releases and insurgent violence.

congressional considerations

Congress plays an important role in determining the direction of the conflict and whether full withdrawal or a sustained presence would better accomplish U.S. national security goals. On February 4, 2019, the Senate passed, by a vote of 70-26, a sense of the Senate amendment opposing any “precipitous withdrawal” from Afghananistan or Syria.

The Senate reaffirmed this position when it voted 60-33 to block an amendment to the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would have ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The amendment also would have sunset the the 2001 authorization for the use of military force. The 2001 AUMF gives the president the authority to use force against all entities involved in the September 11 attacks. There is continued debate in Congress surrounding the 2001 AUMF and whether or how to replace it.

Issue Tag: National Security