How the 20 year war in Afghanistan should have ended after a week

The Bush Administration blew off a golden opportunity to catch OBL.

Both the 10 year hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the 20 year long war in Afghanistan was entirely unnecessary and entirely avoidable. Coalition forces are finally leaving Afghanistan after 20 years of costly warfare, with nothing positive to show for it, and few know the story about how this multi decade adventure could have been wrapped up within a week.

With the 20 year anniversary of 9/11 right around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to go back into the archives and refresh our memory, starting just one week after the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom commenced from the skies of Afghanistan.

In October, 2001, with Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts unknown, and the U.S. retaliatory bombing campaign in Afghanistan just wrapping up its first week of what would become a 20 year war, the Taliban presented the Bush Administration with a series of golden opportunities. 

The Taliban, which ruled over Afghanistan under its Islamic Emirate banner, was seeing its territory facing constant bombardment from U.S. fighter jets. American forces made quick work of the most threatening elements of jihadist defences, having successfully decimated virtually every major target assigned to them in a week’s time. In this poverty-stricken land, populated by mud huts, subsistence farms, and mountain ranges, we’re talking about mostly weapons depots and crude militant bases. The Taliban had witnessed the full wrath of the most powerful military in the world, and wanted the devastation to come to an end.

In a series of events that seems to have been entirely swept into the banned books section of history, Taliban leadership decided to reach out to the Americans. They offered up the one target U.S. forces seemed to be unable to locate: none other than Osama Bin Laden himself. 

A top Taliban official stated: "If the Taliban is given evidence that Osama bin Laden is involved" and the bombing campaign stops, "we would be ready to hand him over to a third country."

President George W. Bush not only rejected the Taliban’s approach, but made demands upon the group that seemed to be designed to be impossible to achieve. The Bush Administration seemed to tip its hand that they were hell bent on the destruction of not only the individuals and group responsible for 9/11, but intended on bringing down the Taliban, too. That more wide-ranging objective became crystal clear in the coming months and years.

"They must have not heard. There's no negotiations," President Bush told reporters, in completely dismissing the offer to negotiate over the architect of the 9/11 attacks that had occurred only one month prior. "turn him [bin Laden] over. Turn his cohorts over. Turn any hostage they hold over. Destroy all the terrorist camps," he added.

According to reports, the Taliban would again contact Bush Administration authorities, and later drop their demand that the U.S. provide evidence for Bin Laden’s involvement in the September 11 attacks. The jihadi outfit claimed it was ready and willing to hand him over to the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an international organization of Muslim-majority states, with the objective of Bin Laden facing trial through the group’s Islamic judiciary processes. They received the same response from the Bush Administration, which made it clear that there would be no negotiations. 

The Taliban certainly wanted the U.S. offensive to end, but were unwilling to unilaterally deliver Bin Laden to the Americans on a silver platter. They likely understood that accommodating the Americans’ all-or-nothing demands would threaten their legitimacy as the ruling regime in Afghanistan. 

Had the Bush Administration come to the table with the Taliban, the war would have likely been over in mid October, 2001, with Bin Laden facing trial, minimal casualties on both sides, and a significant amount of American objectives already having been accomplished. Instead, we spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of American lives over the course of a 20 year nation building, democracy project campaign that has resulted with total catastrophe. And in the end, that very same Taliban, far from degraded, is in a position of more power, prestige, and control over Afghanistan than they could have ever imagined.