Where is Afghanistan?

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Google searches for Afghanistan exploded by ten times in August as foreign affairs made a rare foray into mainstream news across the globe. 

The Taliban stunned the world with its rapid takeover of the South Asian country, the second time in 25 years. The intelligence community was aware of the risks but expected the US-trained and equipped Afghan forces to hold down the Taliban for at least 18 months. Instead, the army capitulated without a fight and the Islamist group captured Kabul in less than three months. 

The turn of events left the US and its allies to coordinate a complicated exit in a hostile environment and against a near-impossible deadline. Tens of thousands of foreign nationals and Afghan citizens are scrambling to flee the country before the door shuts on them on August 31. 

To the Afghan people, this is the fifth major shift in five decades. The country was declared a republic when a non-violent coup abolished the monarchy in 1973, but unrest soon gripped the country and another coup – a bloody one this time – installed a new Marxist- Leninist administration by 1978. 

The new revolutionary agenda clashed with traditional Islamic values that had flourished for centuries and the discontent spread to almost all provinces. The tension led Soviet Russia to cross the border and invade its southern neighbour in 1979, at the height of the Cold War. 

Wary of the threat posed by the Red Army in the region, the United States threw its support behind some factions of the Mujahideen openly fighting the new occupiers. The situation led to untold killings and destruction, robbing the Afghans of a whole decade until the USSR finally withdrew from the territory in 1989. 

The country made up of 14 different ethnolinguistic groups and many more tribes, was thrown into a civil war while other forces in the region sought to impose their influence on the outcomes of the violence. 

Around the mid-1990s, an Islamist movement emerged as a new powerful force in southern and central Afghanistan. The Taliban, as the politico-religious group came to be known, mounted a swift assault on the capital, Kabul, and eventually conquered it in 1996. 

The new rulers enforced a degree of authority that extended to most of the country, but the international community was growing anxious that the Taliban was harbouring new jihadist networks, among them Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. 

The 9/11 attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Within less than a month, a US-led operation launched military strikes against the Taliban, overthrowing the regime. The counter-terrorism effort soon transformed into a reconstruction project and the US is believed to have poured over $2 trillion into the country in the last 20 years. 

In 2020, President Donald Trump negotiated a peace deal and agreed to take America out of Afghanistan. His successor, Joe Biden, announced that all troops would be withdrawn before September 11. 

The events in the last few weeks have drawn the world into Afghanistan just as international forces were getting out. The dramatic changeover is all but an old story to many Afghans, who have grown to understand that any political system is a temporary and fragile arrangement. And yet, that repeated story only hints at an uncertain future.

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