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When George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan, his target was, I suppose, to root out the terrorist network of Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden was killed in 2011.

Recently, Joe Biden said that the USA didn't go to Afghanistan for nation-building.

So, if Bin Laden was killed in 2011 and the USA was not building the nation of Afghanistan, why did the USA stay in Afghanistan beyond 2011?

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    You might want to wait at least 24 hours before accepting an answer. This would allow people in other time zones to answer before the question is considered to be answered. Other, even better answers might also arise in that time.
    – user31389
    Jul 15 at 20:25
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    A stronger version of the above comment - you should un-accept your currently accepted answer. There is an answer which is clearly much more thorough and well-cited, as evidenced by its much higher score
    – Gramatik
    Jul 16 at 15:47
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    @user366312 If the only answer you're willing to entertain is that the US was looking to expand its "empire", and not any of the nuance the highest voted answer details, you've asked this question in bad faith
    – Gramatik
    Jul 16 at 17:20
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    @Gramatik user366312 tends to ask questions from a Middle East / Central Asian perspective. Which means that they do not need to align with US views in accepting their answers, nor should they be expected to. While I disagree with "Russian guy"'s answer, it is not implausible and against common sense either. Keep in mind we all tend to view and interpret events through our own prejudices. Jul 16 at 18:06
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    @user366312 I couldn't care less which answer you choose, but reading my answer as in favor of the US is a massive misinterpretation.
    – Erwan
    Jul 17 at 23:43
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The question assumes that the US invaded Afghanistan solely to punish Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden. While this was indeed the main motivation, there are also some complex political reasons at play.

Context of the invasion

  • The 9/11 attacks were a major trauma for the US. In terms of both domestic and foreign politics, it called for a strong answer.
  • Finding Osama Bin Laden was mostly an intelligence operation, and eliminating him (in Pakistan) was a "Special Mission" carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command. It's possible that the full-scale invasion of Afghanistan contributed to this goal, but it's not obvious that it was a necessity.
  • Afghanistan was an obvious target since it was openly hosting Al Qaeda bases. It's worth noting that from the point of view of reacting to the 9/11 attacks, the role of Saudi Arabia could have been questioned as well

These points show that the full-scale invasion of Afghanistan did not solely obey a simple strategic goal against Al Qaeda and its leader, it also served a political goal as a mighty display of power targeted against an openly hostile country. This was important for domestic politics in particular, because the US public was expecting a strong military answer, not only some invisible intelligence operations.

Occupation

There was no clear plan about what happens after the invasion. Due to the reasons mentioned above, the original plan could be roughly summarized as "shoot first, think later". But once the US-led coalition successfully occupied Afghanistan, it became de facto responsible for managing it. Additionally it turned out that the Talibans were very successful at guerilla warfare (what a surprise), making it impossible to pacify the whole country.

So not only the US (and their allies) ended involved with a continuous state of guerilla warfare in Afghanistan, they also found themselves responsible with re-building the country since they are the occupying power. Politically speaking, the occupying forces could not abandon the country because:

  • Obviously the country is likely to go back to its previous state, so it would still be a threat to the US.
  • Ostensibly there was an understanding that the US coalition was supposed to bring freedom and democracy. It would look bad in Western countries to leave without even trying to establish a democratic system.

Additionally, in the US psyche there is also the trauma of the Vietnam war: no politician wants to be seen as the one who orders the troops back home, with the enemies immediately controlling the whole country. This would be perceived as a crushing defeat.

Departure

For all these reasons, the US-led coalition stayed much longer than they expected in Afghanistan. They tried to form a functioning government and a reasonably well trained army, and this takes time. The goal was political: they had to make it look like the Afghanistan war was a reasonably successful mission, not a costly and humiliating mistake like Vietnam.

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    Are you saying the US now seriously expects the Afghan government to hold up against the Taliban for more than a week after they leave? Jul 15 at 22:09
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    @JonathanReez I didn't say anything like this, I said say that they tried to make it look like it was a reasonably successful mission. Actually I hesitated adding something about whether it was a real success or not, but I thought it might be interpretative and it's not related to the question. Anyway I assume that people who follow the news can easily judge by themselves.
    – Erwan
    Jul 15 at 22:23
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    @JonathanReez That's the one thing I'd add to this: for 20 years presidents have known the country would probably fall apart when we left and they'd be blamed. That's why they stayed. Biden was VP for 8 years of "just a little longer". He kicked the can to ... himself ... and won't do it again. Jul 15 at 23:36
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    Nitpick: why write "traumatism" when "trauma" would have served even better? Jul 16 at 13:50
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    @chubbsondubs Afghanistan was a monarchy until 1973, the king was then overthrown by a communist coup, which replaced him with a nominally democratic government. In reality, it was a one-party dictatorship, that was itself overthrown by a coup in 1978. Afghanistan was never a democracy.
    – Ryan_L
    Jul 17 at 5:29
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Not sure this counts as a full answer, but here goes.

The Afghanistan quagmire was probably largely unintentional, just like the Iraqi one. If you read up on the level of group thinking and hubris under the Bush administration circa 2001-03, it is pretty amazing in its naivety. I read a number of these books, mostly about Iraq though. These people truly thought that, once the natives were gifted with the insights of US democracy and free marketry they would see the light and things would magically fall into place.

After the Iraq invasion, the US tried, quite hard, to get the UN to carry the bag for them. The UN was reluctant, and when their envoy was killed by a car bomb, they entirely demurred, leaving the US in charge.

Once it was clear no one else was going to do their work for them, the US then had to try to put in place a government suitable for their interests. That didn't really happen in Iraq, but at least they left a government of sorts in charge in 2008, even though Western countries had to bail Iraq out from ISIS 6 years later.

In Afghanistan no stable government has been achieved to date, despite years of, competent or not, attempts to do so. Not unlike South Vietnam (at a political rather than military level) the US-backed governments never found much legitimacy, were frequently accused of corruption and commanded only limited performance from its own military.

Pretty sure the US would have loved to leave the locals in charge, had they managed to have a viable government that suited them handy earlier on. (that there is no oil in Afghanistan only strengthens my gut feeling about this).

FWIW, Biden's take in 2008/9, reported in Obama's Wars by Woodward was to leave only a strong anti-terrorist force capable of rooting out anti-US terror groups if needed, not controlling the country. Note that this is 2-3 years before OBL gets killed. OBL's last real undisputable presence in Afghanistan was during the Tora Bora battle in late 2001. The context was also that the US had just semi-stabilized Iraq with the "surge" under Petraeus and the Pentagon felt they could do it again in Afghanistan, given 40K more troops.

What do I mean by "suitable"?

  1. Not Taliban - they were after all the guys the US booted in 2001.
  2. Not likely to host international terrorists groups
  3. Nice and cuddly to women, minorities and everyone, thus justifying Pax Americana and the hundreds of billions of $ spent.

Apparently, the US has resigned itself that if #1 and #3 can't be achieved, then perhaps the Taliban can be cajoled into #2. Which isn't necessarily a bad call: the Taliban know that they managed to oppress Afghanis just fine despite international outcry, until OBL pulled off 9/11. So they will probably be wary of being threatening enough to motivate another regime change.

To quote another user's answer, concerning the US and Iran this time (my bolding):

Invasions are commitments of the utmost gravity. You're not just committing materiel for the opening, kinetic phase of the war, but also a permanent force to occupy and govern. This was the key strategic error the United States made in the second Iraq war, they conquered Iraq easily but could not then govern or even effectively and swiftly prop up a new government. The costs for invading even a nation that offers no credible military threat to you are far in excess of what most observers understand.

In summary, the US stayed more by accident, and yes, by initial hubris, than by design. Later, they desperately did not want to lose face, even as they realized their "plan" to kickstart Afghanistan into the 21st century wasn't working.

p.s. "Pivot theory"?

Well, if the USA was so forward-seeing and competent, why did they not do their best to gain influence in Afghanistan in 1992, once Najibullah got kicked out, and before 1994 when the Taliban kicked out the warlords? Had they cared the Afghans would have looked a lot more kindly on the people who had helped booting the Russians. Instead, helping with reconstruction and nation-building was proposed by some in Congress and quickly ditched as policy. This was most unkind to the Afghans (who deserve massive credit for helping rid the world of the USSR), set the world up for the events of 9/11 and, coincidentally, also totally against Pivot Theory. So, despite Pivot Theory being 100 years old it was totally ignored from 1992-94 but nefariously revived in 2001??? India, more calculating, but also with more immediate reasons to (Pakistan), has tried to support and gain influence with the US-backed governments.

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    Just one small remark about the absence of oil in Afghanistan. That is very true, but their mountains are very rich in mineral ores, including ones containing rare-earth metals. Here is the quote of this Wikipædia article: «Afghanistan's resources could make it one of the richest mining regions in the world». From the viewpoint of economics it is a good substitution for oil, I trust.
    – S. N.
    Jul 16 at 9:37
  • @S.N. true, although mineral deposits can take a long time to get at. But, yes. Jul 16 at 14:27
  • "The context was also that the US had just semi-stabilized Iraq with the "surge" under Petraeus and the Pentagon felt they could do it again in Iraq, given 40K more troops." did you mean afghansitan 2nd time? Jul 16 at 16:53
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According to Pivot Theory, Afganistan is the center of the so-called Heartland (which is meant to be Eurasia).

It's a very important region for projecting politics/power and influence into Central Asia.

Different superpowers: British Empire (during The Great Game), USSR during the first Cold War, and then the US nowadays tried to maintain control over it. But no one succeeded, as we can see.

PS

One of the benefits the US gained during these 20 years was a 20 times increase in drugs production - which were then transported to Russia/China causing drug usage. That point - reducing drug production - was also discussed during the last Taliban visit to Moscow. When the Taliban was in power, before the US invasion, drugs production was way lower than nowadays.

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    Do you have a reference for that 20x figure?
    – Tashus
    Jul 15 at 16:59
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    Getting others addicted to drugs should never be seen as benefit. It is a dangerous boomerang policy Jul 16 at 2:05
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    Kinda doubt the drug benefit was intentional. Poppy growing, or at least taxing those who did, was a good source of revenue to the Taliban, so it would have in US's troops' interest to disrupt it. If orders "came from above" not to, this would have made a stir - there is no shortage of Afghanistan memoirs doing the rounds and few of them are all that complimentary about HQ orders. Jul 16 at 2:30
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    Let's wiki walk thru this 20x claim, which is not wrong, but not the whole truth. 1994-1999 bumper crops, under Taliban. 2000 Taliban signs up for UN drug suppression program: un-Islamic, 99% drop in harvest (I suspect farmers heads rolled, literally). 2001, US boots out Taliban. So that drop under Taliban was very anomalous and hardly indicative of general Taliban behavior to that point. Jul 16 at 14:32
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    Is there any evidence that anyone in power really believes in Pivot Theory? I thought it was ridiculously outdated pseudoscience from the early 1900s.
    – Nick S
    Jul 16 at 17:59
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It's because the US wanted more than to kill Osama bin Laden. Here's a recent quote about why the US invaded Afghanistan in the first place.

A long-time skeptic of the 20-year military presence there, Biden said the United States had long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001: to root out al-Qaeda militants and prevent another attack on the United States like the one launched on Sept.11, 2001. The mastermind of that attack, Osama bin Laden, was killed by a U.S. military team in 2011.

Rooting out al-Qaeda militants was one goal, which was achieved in 2011. The other - to prevent another attack on the US like the one on 11/9/2001 - is presumably what the next 10 years in Afghanistan was for.

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    So, now, since the Taliban is taking back the control of Afghanistan, isn't it rolling back the USA's achievements in the same way as they got rolled back after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989?
    – user366312
    Jul 15 at 7:48
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    If you assume the Taliban is a terrorist organization that is going to mount another 9/11-style attack on the US, yes.
    – Allure
    Jul 15 at 7:51
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    If YES, then why is the USA leaving?
    – user366312
    Jul 15 at 8:00
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    Because you are making the assessment that 1) the Taliban is a terrorist organization and 2) they are going to mount another 9/11 style attack on the US. The Biden administration evidently doesn't agree with that assessment (or they think the best way to meet another 9/11 style attack isn't by having troops in Afghanistan).
    – Allure
    Jul 15 at 8:09
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    @user366312 This is far less black and white and much more of a continuum going somewhat like: Afghan central government, local sanctioned governments, local unsanctioned governments (warlords), Islamists (Taliban), Islamist extremists (al-Qa'ida),and extreme pseudo-islamist psycho-crazy-incel-idiots (ISIS). There are fine distinctions and overlaps between them and willingness for alliance between close groups against more remote groups. E.g. ISIS is just too crazy to be acceptable even for certain al-Qa'ida factions while others collaborate or merge with it.
    – Eleshar
    Jul 16 at 9:14

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