SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — September 11, 2001, two hijacked airliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A third hit the Pentagon, and a fourth was downed by its passengers in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Less than two months later and half a world away, Operation Enduring Freedom was underway with US B-52 bombers dropping ordinance over Afghanistan.
Now, nearly 20 years after the start of the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Afghan government has fallen, the Taliban has seized control of the country and the United States is in the midst of a mass evacuation effort, working to extract embassy workers, allies and other personnel as civilians make desperate attempts to flee the country.
The Taliban is defined as a terrorist entity by the United Nations Security Council. The Taliban provided support for al-Qaeda the terrorist group that carried out the September 11 terror attack. Following the attack, the Taliban also provided shelter to Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot.
KELOLAND News spoke with US Senator John Thune on Wednesday about the evacuation and current state of affairs in Afghanistan.
“It’s a mess right now and a colossal failure in terms of planning on behalf of the Biden administration,” said Thune about the situation. “It’s really unfortunate because you’ve got literally thousands upon thousands of Afghan women and children who are ultimately going to be slaughtered by the Taliban.”
Thune also lamented the fate of those who have assisted the American cause in Afghanistan, as well as the Americans still stuck in the country.
“I hope they can figure out a way to provide a secure, safe and stable transportation to get those people out of there,” he said.
In discussing what could have been done differently, Thune criticized the decision by the Biden administration to publicize their official withdrawal date as September 11. “The enemy just plans around it,” he said. “The Taliban is clearly doing that.”
Thune said he thinks the Biden administration should have begun withdrawing troops last spring, when the decision was made to end the occupation.
“They should have started to execute that evacuation at that point — get the Americans out of there,” he said.
Asked if the publicizing of a withdrawal date was a mistake made by both the Biden and the Trump administration, who originally announced a full withdrawal date of May 1, 2021, Thune said that there is a difference.
“The plan for getting people out of there has been obviously very different,” he said. “The Trump administration was talked out of — on multiple occasions — doing what the Biden administration is doing right now, and that is setting a date and then pulling people out of the country.”
Thune says he believes that keeping a small presence of troops in Afghanistan would have been favorable compared to a full withdrawal.
“I disagree with the decision in the first place,” Thune continued, “but if that decision once it’s made — you’ve gotta have a plan.”
Looking back over the past 20 years of US presence in Afghanistan, Thune says that America was successful in our primary goal. “The reason we went there in the first place was to rid that area of Terrorists; particularly at that time, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban had created a sanctuary, a safe haven, for al-Qaeda to plan and train and execute attacks against the United States.”
Thune says that “from our standpoint it was a national security issue — and I think that was successful.”
Going forward Thune fears that Afghanistan under Taliban control will once again become a “sanctuary” for terrorism.
“It’s a difficult, complicated part of the world,” said Thune. “The Brits were there a long time ago, the Russians have been there, we’ve been there for 20 years — I understand people’s willingness and want and desire to get out of there, but like so many other places around the world where we have national security interests, sometimes maintaining a small footprint can prevent a lot worse things from happening.”
“We didn’t lose a single life in Afghanistan last year,” said Thune. “With a small 2,500 to 3,000 number of troops there, we maintained stability for a country that’s trying to find it’s way toward freedom and democracy — I think that’s been a worthwhile cause.”
Having made it clear that he thinks some troops should have been planned to remain in Afghanistan, KELOLAND News asked Thune how long that force would need to remain.
Jacob Newton: You mentioned that keeping a small footprint is what you think would have been the preferable option to maintain stability. How long would that footprint then be necessary?
Thune: Well it’s hard to say. I mean that as long as there’s a national security imperative for us to be there — and again it’s been arguable in Afghanistan about what is our long-term goal here — but if you look at other places around the world, whether it’s Europe or the Korean Peninsula; we’ve got troops that have been in places — Africa — for a long long time. I don’t think it’s unusual, if the United States believes there’s a national security purpose mission being served there, to keep troops in a place for a long time.
Looking to the future in the current situation, Thune seemed to recognize the necessity of dealing with the Taliban as the de facto government of Afghanistan at this time.
“I think the Biden administration’s policy is going to evolve and change with the new circumstances on the ground there. I think they hoped there would be an Afghan government, an Afghan national security force that would be able to defend the city of Kabul and protect the people, but that’s not the case,” he said. “My assumption is they’ll probably have to try to find a way with the Taliban to at least make sure that we don’t have the conditions that are favorable to terrorist organizations like al-Queda taking root there — it’s going to be a whole different shooting match than what we’ve been dealing with the last 20 years.”
I think they’re gonna have to look at trying to come up with ways to develop a relationship with the people that are going to be running the country, and unfortunately that’s probably going to be the Taliban.Sen. John Thune
With the conflict seemingly come full-circle, we now take a look back over the last two decades, examining the events that led to this point.
Use the timeline below to explore some of the main events throughout the US involvement in Afghanistan.