Did the War in Afghanistan Have to Happen?

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Taliban fighters brandished Kalashnikovs and shook their fists in the air after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, defying American warnings that if they did...
A helicopter leaves the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. The embassy was shut down by the end of the day. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

not hand over Osama bin Laden, their country would be bombed to smithereens.

The bravado faded once American bombs began to fall. Within a few weeks, many of the Taliban had fled the Afghan capital, terrified by the low whine of approaching B-52 aircraft. Soon, they were a spent force, on the run across the arid mountain-scape of Afghanistan. As one of the journalists who covered them in the early days of the war, I saw their uncertainty and loss of control firsthand.

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It was in the waning days of November 2001 that Taliban leaders began to reach out to Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the interim president of Afghanistan: They wanted to make a deal.

"The Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty," recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations' political team in Afghanistan at the time.

Messengers shuttled back and forth between Karzai and the headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, in Kandahar. Karzai envisioned a Taliban surrender that would keep the militants from playing any significant role in the country's future.

But Washington, confident that the Taliban would be wiped out forever, was in no mood for a deal.

"The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in a news conference at the time, adding that the Americans had no interest in leaving Omar to live out his days anywhere in Afghanistan. The United States wanted him captured or dead.

Almost 20 years later, the United States did negotiate a deal to end the Afghan war, but the balance of power was entirely different by then — it favored the Taliban.

For diplomats who had spent years trying to shore up the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, the…
Alissa J. Rubin
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