U.S. leaves the 'graveyard of empires': A look at the legacy of the war in Afghanistan

As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, Alex Panetta takes a look at the legacy of the longest war in U.S. history. The Taliban are almost everywhere, al-Qaeda is still lurking, and the future seems bleak. Was it worth it?

The Taliban are almost everywhere, al-Qaeda is still lurking, and the future seems bleak

In this photo, taken in 2001, a cardboard sign reminds U.S. marines that the Taliban are everywhere in Afghanistan. It's increasingly true in 2021. (Jim Hollander/Reuters)

Osama bin Laden once boasted that, with just a few jihadists, he could draw the United States military to the ends of the Earth, and drag the superpower into suffering economic, political and human losses with no lasting achievements to show for it.

Now, two decades later, the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan

Next month, the military will complete its exit from the so-called graveyard of empires, after the longest war in American history — with trillions of dollars spent, thousands of soldiers killed, and tens of thousands of Afghan lives lost.

What started as a mission to defeat bin Laden and al-Qaeda for attacking the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and the Taliban regime that harboured them, morphed into a bloody counter-insurgency and messy nation-building exercise.   

Looming over the departure of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a question conjured by bin Laden's boast all those years ago: Was it worth it?

Afghanistan risks finding itself back where it was on that history-rattling date of Sept. 11, 2001 — governed, once again, by oppressive theocrats, once again sheltering al-Qaeda.

The Taliban are seizing new territory, with the pace accelerating since the United States began withdrawing its troops. This map from the analyst site Long War Journal illustrates that trend. (Long War Journal)

Taliban fighters are gobbling up new pieces of the country each day, closing in on cities, shutting schools, reimposing draconian rules on women.

Al-Qaeda is still there. Despite a 2020 agreement with the Trump administration, in which the Taliban promised not to host groups that threaten American security, a recent UN report said al-Qaeda had hundreds of fighters in Taliban-controlled areas of 12 provinces.

Now those Afghans who risked their lives working for U.S., Canadian and coalition forces are living in terror.

It's unclear how long militias will keep fighting the Taliban. Here a militia member loads his rifle as Afghan special forces visit a district centre in Kandahar province. The photographer who took this photo on July 12, Danish Siddiqui, was killed this week amid fighting nearby. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Taliban fighters taking control of towns, highways 

Several of them described in interviews with CBC News the sound of gunfire echoing from the outskirts of Kabul as Taliban fighters grab towns and highways, and set up road checkpoints. 

One man who worked in construction as a contractor for the Canadian military said he's been targeted before. A few years ago, he said, he was jumped by two men on a motorbike, one of whom slashed his throat with a knife.

The man, who asked to be identified by a nickname, Sheriff, said he was lucky to survive. He stumbled into his parents' home, bleeding from his neck. He waited a few hours before going to hospital because he feared being seen on the street, he said.

He says people know he speaks English, many know he worked for foreigners, and, if the Taliban take Kabul, where he's staying, he assumes he's dead.

"It's scary. It's close to the city," he said of the insurgent fighting.

"I'm scared. Everybody is scared."   

As the Taliban seized a vital border crossing this week between Kandahar and Pakistan, at Spin Boldak, people seen here on the Pakistani side raised Taliban flags. (Abdul Khaliq Achakzai/Reuters)

Another man who worked for Canadians, an interpreter who asked to be referred to as Gino for safety reasons, said Taliban fighters killed a friend of his a few days ago. They entered the family home and shot him in front of his wife and parents, Gino said.

Another interpreter, who asked to be called Kohistany, said the anecdotes he's hearing from contacts outside Kabul suggest the Taliban are every bit as brutal, or worse, than they were in the 1990s.

An internally displaced Afghan girl is seen carrying a child near their shelter at a camp on the outskirts of Kabul in 2019. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Frightened Canadian allies plead for help to leave

He said friends who have left the city report seeing Taliban everywhere, running checkpoints, controlling access to travel, and attacking political enemies.

As a result, he said, he's shuttered inside the house.

"We're like home-arrested people. Like prisoners," he said. 

"This is a really, really bad situation.… They've killed pilots. Judges. Employees of NATO.… Whatever is in front of them, they kill."

Ottawa says it is working on a plan to extract Canada's former employees as quickly as possible. But interpreters who worked for the Canadian military say time is running out.

Members of Afghan special forces take cover while travelling in a Humvee that was damaged during heavy clashes with the Taliban in Kandahar province. The photographer who took this photo, Danish Siddiqui, was killed this week during a clash near a Kandahar-area border with Pakistan. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Taliban seize vital exit point from country

The Taliban have already taken a vital exit point from the country by land: a key border crossing with Pakistan at Spin Boldak, where this week the Taliban flag was raised.

If the Kabul airport falls to the Taliban, Kohistany says, they'll be stranded. Gino says he's worried any plan will come too late.

"I saved their lives," he said of the Canadian military. 

"I worked 24 hours [a day] for them.… Now they've left us behind."

Canada did have an immigration program a decade ago for its Afghan employees, but some chose to stay in their home country, hoping things would get better.

The stark reality now has brought pain not only in Afghanistan but to international soldiers who fought, were injured, and saw friends die there.

Canada lost 158 soldiers and seven civilians in Afghanistan. Here a soldier pays his respects, on Remembrance Day 2011, at a war memorial that existed at Kandahar Air Field at the time. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

It's conveyed in a sad message this week from Canada's acting chief of defence staff, Wayne Eyre. He cited the trauma of seeing the fall of one particular district in Kandahar, and the bleak realization that, unlike Canadian veterans of past wars, who can visit and enjoy seeing the progress in Europe and South Korea, this generation of veterans might never experience that joy.

His note, which he posted on Twitter, listed places where soldiers and families can get help if they're struggling mentally or emotionally with this news.

So, was it worth it?

The thing is, when you talk to Afghans who've worked for international organizations, they'll tell you it was, though it's worth keeping in mind that English-speaking employees of international institutions are by no means a representative sample of Afghanistan's overall demographics.

What was achieved, what's in peril

Education enrolment multiplied. The percentage of girls in school catapulted from a trickle to a strong majority. Some women go to university

Thousands of teachers have been trained. Youth literacy rates jumped 20 percentage points in a decade. Internet access is up, albeit still among the lowest in the world. 

Education rates skyrocketed in Afghanistan, especially for women and girls. Those gains are now at risk. Here a girl shows her colouring book at a kindergarten in Mazar-e-Sharif in 2012. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Sheriff said his own sister is studying medicine in university. Gino said it's a mistake to call the whole mission a waste.

"That is completely wrong," Gino said. 

"When you compare Afghanistan with 20 years ago, there are lots of changes.… You name it, and you see it [has changed]."

But schools are disappearing.

When Taliban take an area, several people interviewed said, they issue instructions — either through public notices or verbally in a community meeting: Schools must close, women are to stay home, and men are to grow their beards. 

Gino said insurgents shut a school run by a member of his family.

"They destroyed everything in the school.… They burned documents. They shot at the computers, the chairs," he said. "It's over." 

Asked whether girls might soon be back in those closed classrooms, he said:  "Impossible."

Was it worth it?

The decision to invade in 2001 had strong support in the U.S. The country had just suffered a catastrophic attack and the government of Afghanistan was giving refuge to its attackers. 

The U.S. swiftly dislodged the Taliban, then sought to nation-build and — this part is crucial — it shifted its focus and resources to a war with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that were never found.

In that sense, the United States gave bin Laden a gift beyond his dreams: He sought to drag the U.S. into one intractable battle, and instead the U.S. gave him two.

A boy watches as a convoy of Afghan special forces passes through a market in Kandahar province on July 12. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Another mistake, Sheriff said, was the U.S. waited too long to negotiate with the Taliban. He said they should have been pulled into political talks earlier, when they were weaker and had less leverage.

Afghan institutions remain weak. 

Afghans describe resenting their government. They complain about rampant corruption — about needing to slip someone a bribe for basic services, such as printing an ID card or getting a construction permit.

"People hate the government," Gino said.

"You cannot say 'hello' in Afghanistan without paying money."

Yet he and several others interviewed expressed anger at the way U.S. President Joe Biden has pulled out — with little consultation with the government; on short notice; with no plan to prevent a Taliban takeover; and no consequences for people funding and training the Taliban in Pakistan.

Mohammad Hussain poses for a picture inside his grape farm in Parwan province in 2014, a project funded by one of the U.S. aid programs in the country. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

U.S. pullout leaves country more vulnerable

Bill Roggio, a veteran and editor of the Long War Journal on Afghanistan, says it's like watching a house of cards topple — the Americans pulling out has revealed the flimsiness of the edifice.

"The way things are trending, the Afghan government would be lucky to outlast the summer," he said. 

"It's that bad."

As for whether the whole exercise was worth it, he said it's hard to answer the question directly. He said the U.S. needed to chase bin Laden out after 9/11. And he called efforts to build institutions noble. 

But they were poorly executed, he said, and ultimately failed. 

A recent United Nations report says there are differences of opinion within the Taliban over the value of the pact with the U.S. The dispute pits the Taliban's most hardline fighters against members of its political wing, like those seen here in Moscow in March. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters)

Could Afghanistan become an incubator for terrorism again?

Roggio expects al-Qaeda and other groups to use it for training and planning. And he said the U.S. will have far less intelligence into what's happening on the ground there.

Effects on the home front

The war changed not only Afghanistan but shaped the U.S., too. Americans have little interest now in exporting democracy. 

They are tired of the conflict and happy to be leaving.

It has left a hole in families and communities that lost soldiers. It has traumatized thousands more. 

And extremist militia groups at home are doing the exact same thing they did after the Vietnam War — they're looking to recruit veterans into their ranks.

Bin Laden bragged that it cost just $500,000 to finance the 9/11 plot. Since then, the U.S. has spent hundreds of thousands of times that sum in Afghanistan alone.

Was it worth it?

We can't ask bin Laden, the ringleader who attacked New York and Washington two decades ago. 

He's been dead for years. And he haunts us still.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

With files from Farrah Merali