On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we’re taking a look back at the US-Afghanistan war. The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001. And pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021, hitting President Joe Biden's Aug 31 deadline for all US troops to withdraw from the country. The withdrawal marked the end to nearly 20 years of war. But two weeks before, the Taliban re-took control of Afghanistan, capturing major cities in a matter of days before storming the presidential palace in the nation’s capital Kabul. Afghanistan’s president fled, and Afghan security forces collapsed.
The Taliban’s rapid takeover surprised the world. And left Afghanistan in a state of chaos. Thousands rushed to Kabul’s airport to try and flee on evacuation flights to countries like the US, UK, South Korea, and more. Others closed their businesses and hid in their homes — fearful that their rights and freedoms would be erased under renewed Taliban control. Protesters marched, shouted, and waved the Afghan national flag through the streets, rallying against Taliban rule. But Taliban fighters retaliated with gunshots, beatings, and bombings.
Now, as the world reflects on the past two decades, we’re breaking down the US-led invasion by year and by president, impacts of the war on Afghanistan, and where things could go from here.
Reminder: This is a Skimm’d-down version of a complex war that lasted nearly two decades.
The History of the US-Afghanistan War
Before we get into the US’s involvement in Afghanistan, let’s set the scene and look back at Afghanistan pre-2001.
Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East have a long history of foreign intervention and conflict. For centuries, a long line of leaders (think: Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and more) ruled the region. Including Arab conquerors who helped Islam become the dominant religion there.
Afghanistan Before the US Invasion
1830: The British began to try to take control of Afghanistan, hoping to use the country as a buffer to prevent the former USSR from extending its influence to British India. Britain eventually invaded Afghanistan in 1838, which caused three wars between the two nations.
1919: Afghanistan and Britain signed a peace treaty at the end of the third war, leading to Afghan independence. Afghanistan also became one of the first countries to recognize the Soviet gov during this time. And that came in handy for them because in...
1950: Afghan PM Gen. Mohammed Daoud Khan tapped the USSR for some economic and military help.
1973: Khan overthrew his cousin (aka the Afghan king) to turn the country into a communist state. The PM then promoted himself to president and the USSR became the country’s closest ally.
1979: Communism started to nosedive in Afghanistan as Islamic leaders fought to regain control. So the USSR decided to step in (read: invaded) to keep the country in line. But a group of fighters known as the Mujahadeen banded together to fight against the Soviet army and Soviet-backed Afghan forces. Meanwhile, millions of Afghan citizens fled to Pakistan and Iran to escape the violence.
1984: Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan to help the Mujahadeen continue their fight. The US, UK, and other western countries also sent weapons and supplies to help the Mujahadeen fight against the USSR invasion and stop the country’s rising influence.
1988: Afghanistan got a taste of peace. The US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union signed a peace treaty, which officially kicked Soviet troops out of the country. But Afghanistan still had a Soviet-backed president (elected in 1986) still in office. The Mujahadeen wanted him out and continued the violence (think: shooting rockets and looting businesses) to make that happen.
1992: The Mujahadeen captured Kabul and established Afghanistan as an Islamic state. But factions of the Mujahadeen army started to fight each other, each wanting to rule the country in its own way. The internal fighting led to a civil war — which led to the birth of the Taliban.
The Taliban were made up of Afghan patriots who promised citizens peace. And with many Afghan citizens exhausted from years of on-and-off warfare, they accepted the Taliban’s rule in exchange for order.
The Taliban Takeover (1996-2001)
1996: After much warfare, the Taliban officially took over the country from the Mujahadeen, declaring Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate (aka a land ruled by a usually-Muslim king).
They imposed harsh laws in line with their strict interpretation of Sharia — Islamic law based on teachings in the Quran that guides the behavior and actions of Muslims in different parts of life (like marriage or finances).
That meant: Music and movies were banned. Anyone caught stealing could have a body part amputated. Women weren’t allowed to work, attend school past age 10, leave the house without a man with them, or wear clothing that didn’t cover themselves from head to toe. The harsh laws were enforced with public beatings and executions.
Meanwhile, another terror group was on the move. Remember: Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan to help the Mujahadeen fight the Soviets before the Taliban took over. In 1988, he and several other militants had formed al-Qaeda (which is Arabic for “the base”). Their plan was to continue fighting countries (like the US) who they believed were against the idea of an Islamic state.
1998: Al-Qaeda led a mission to bomb two American embassies in Africa. President Bill Clinton responded with a missile attack against al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, which were used to train bin Laden’s growing group of supporters. The US demanded bin Laden be extradited to stand trial for the embassy bombings, but the Taliban refused.
The Start of US-led Invasion: The Bush Era (2001-2008)
2001: On Sept 11, several al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington DC, and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on US soil. And the attacks became a generation-defining moment. The US demanded once again that bin Laden be handed over. But the Taliban again refused. This move was one of the reasons behind President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan.
Oct 2001: Bush ordered an airstrike over Afghanistan and deployed 1,300 troops to fight on the ground. The US teamed up with a number of its allies (like Australia, Canada, France, the UK, and Germany) to find bin Laden, take down al-Qaeda, and topple the Taliban.
Nov 2001: The Taliban regime started to fall apart. The US and its allies swept cities across the country — quickly gaining control. Former Mujahadeen fighters also helped out by storming Kabul and removing the Taliban stronghold there.
Dec 2001: The Taliban surrendered their last Afghan territory to the US. Many of its militants who survived escaped to nearby countries like Pakistan, including bin Laden.
2002: A time of major change began: The UN helped create a US-backed government in Afghanistan in an effort to install a democratic system, with a gov council tapping interim leaders and voting on a new constitution (which included rights for women). NATO and US forces helped maintain security in Kabul and administer humanitarian aid.
2003: As the Taliban regime fell, US military pursuits began to shift to Iraq to focus on the larger war on terrorism — including removing the threat of weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein claimed to have.
2004: A whopping 10 million Afghan people registered to vote for the first presidential election since 1988.
2005: It was once again time to vote — but this time, for parliament. The nation held its first parliamentary elections in more than 30 years.
Despite the progress, many Afghan citizens still lacked basic services (like access to healthcare and food). Law enforcement wasn’t effectively equipped to police. International forces that Afghans relied on for security started to leave. And government corruption was ramping up.
2006: Re-enter: The Taliban. Many Taliban fighters had fled to Pakistan after the US invasion. But as the new US-backed Afghan gov failed to bring about lasting change, the Taliban picked up its fight with Afghan security forces in the southern regions of the country.
The War Continues: The Obama and Trump Eras (2009-2020)
2009: President Barack Obama took office and recommitted to the war effort in Afghanistan, including the search for bin Laden. He deployed 17,000 troops to Afghanistan in his first year. Their goal was to train Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban. A year later, the number of troops increased to its peak of 100,000.
2011: On May 2, a team of Navy SEALs led a mission into Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was hiding in a compound and killed him. The move was a major win for the US. And Obama planned to pull 10,000 US service members out of the region because of it. The decrease in troops signaled that the responsibility of fighting the Taliban would sooner or later be turned to the Afghans. But the mission threw gas on the Taliban’s fire, and the group began planning another resurgence.
2016: Obama approved a US drone strike to take out the Taliban’s leader in Pakistan, saying he posed a threat to peace between his militants and the Afghan gov.
Soon after, Obama announced plans to start formal peace talks with the Taliban — something that wouldn’t gain steam until President Donald Trump took office.
2019: Trump said he wanted to see an end to this war during his term. And troops on the ground needed relief after repeated Taliban attacks. The US started to make progress toward reaching a peace deal with the Taliban. But Trump called the talks off after a US service member was killed in Kabul because of a Taliban attack.
2020: The peace talks were back on and finally signed. The deets: US troops were to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban would work to stop terror groups (like ISIS-K — a fanatical and brutal offshoot of ISIS) from gaining ground in the country.
The End of the US-led Invasion: The Biden Era and Taliban Takeover 2.0 (2020-present)
2021: Biden picked up Trump's deal and moved the deadline for troops to pull out to Aug 31. He said that the original goal of taking out al-Qaeda had been achieved. And that there was nothing more the US could do for Afghanistan, leaving it to Afghans to decide “how they want to run their country.”
Meanwhile, Taliban forces were on the move for a second resurgence. Here's how things evolved over the past few months…
April 2021: The Taliban controlled about 19% of Afghanistan by the end of the month.
May 2021: They started sweeping through the northern part of the country as US troops began to pack up.
June 2021: The Taliban had spread through about 33% of the country by the middle of the month. Their speedy advance started to alarm the Biden admin and raised concerns about whether the Afghan gov could survive without help. But the withdrawal continued.
July 2021: The US cleared out its largest and last airbase in the country. Plus, the top US Gen. Austin Miller stepped down — marking a symbolic end to the war: He was the longest-serving US commander in the 20-year conflict and oversaw the military effort during the Trump admin's peace talks.
In August, the Taliban swept through the country, taking over a dozen provincial capitals in just two weeks. On Aug 15, they took Kabul, effectively establishing the Taliban regime once again.
Cue international outrage. And stateside, reviews weren’t much better either...
Sec of State Antony Blinken admitted the Taliban's takeover happened "more quickly than we anticipated." Biden called the situation “gut-wrenching” but stuck by his decision to withdraw by Aug 31. And argued the US shouldn’t defend a country that isn’t “willing to fight” for itself.
Some Republicans compared it to the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War in 1975, arguing the US was defeated and Americans had to be once again airlifted out of the city in helicopters. (Blinken disagreed, saying the US had been successful in their mission to “deal with the people” behind 9/11.)
Some Democrats pleaded with the Biden admin to double down on its efforts to get all Americans and Afghan allies out of the country ASAP.
US veterans responded with frustration, anger, and disappointment — one even told CNN the last 20 years were “completely pointless.”
Many Afghans felt betrayed by the US who they saw as an ally.
Women started fearing for their lives and freedoms under a regime that once restricted and punished them.
At the end of August, as the US and other nations worked to evacuate thousands of people, explosions killed more than 182 people outside Kabul’s airport. Including 13 US service members and 169 Afghans. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the explosions. The US responded with a drone strike, which killed several Afghan children.
Overall, the US helped evacuate a total of 123,000 people out of the country, including about 6,000 Americans. Many Afghan refugees have arrived in cities like DC, Philadelphia, and San Antonio, as well as several countries around the world. (Here’s how you can help refugees.) On Aug 30, one day ahead of schedule, all US troops left the country — marking the end of the 20-year war.
The War’s Lasting Impacts on Afghanistan
With the US finally out of Afghanistan, full control of the country and gov is again in the hands of the Taliban. Leaving the world to watch how the situation unfolds for Afghanistan’s…
Women: Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghan women have made advances in the workforce, politics, and education. More girls enrolled in school. And went on to hold positions of power in government and excel in different fields, from sports and business to law enforcement and journalism. But women have been fearful of the return to Taliban control. Some returned to work, only to be turned away. Others were banned from walking in the street. Many hid inside their homes, fearing reprimand. While the Taliban said it would respect women's rights this time around, it's already segregated schools and forbidden many from leaving their homes.
Economy: Throughout the war, Afghanistan's economy was dependent on foreign aid (think: nearly 40% of its income consisted of financial aid from other countries). After the Taliban’s recent takeover, countries like the US and Germany suspended foreign aid to Afghanistan. Banks froze, long lines formed outside ATMs, and cash ran out. Afghans started selling their belongings on the street. And the value of the national currency — the afghani — dropped.
Politics: When the US helped to rebuild the Afghan gov, democratic elections were possible again. But corruption was still common among top bureaucrats. And world leaders fear that will continue as the Taliban forms a new government in Kabul, especially as no plan within the group exists to keep terror groups at bay.
Society: According to the UN, Afghanistan has the third-largest displaced population in the world. Women and children make up 80%. Since 2012, nearly 5 million people fled and didn’t return home — either displaced within Afghanistan or taking refuge in nearby countries.
What’s Next for Afghanistan
The Taliban’s Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhunzada arrived in Kabul at the end of August to discuss political and security issues in the country. In early September, the group chose Taliban veterans to form an interim gov — with no mention of if they’ll hold elections or when they’ll create a permanent gov.
They chose Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund — who was a Taliban leader back in the ‘90s — as prime minister. And picked Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — who signed the deal leading to the US troops withdrawal — as his deputy. Several leaders from the US-designated terror group Haqqani Network were also included on the list. There weren't any leaders chosen from outside the Taliban. Or any roles for women.
The new Taliban regime has a long way to go to make allies. China’s one of the few countries that’s kept its embassy open in Afghanistan — signaling it could be open to doing business with the country’s new gov. Russia might be sending similar signals, too. As for the US, it’s never recognized the Taliban as a gov entity. And is unlikely to do so now.
In the meantime, more than 100 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghan allies are stuck in the country. Including people still hoping to flee to neighboring countries now that the airport’s under Taliban control. The US and 97 other countries signed a deal with the Taliban to allow people to safely leave. But at the end of August, Pakistani and Iranian militaries reinforced their borders, making it difficult for hundreds of refugees to come through. Turkey went as far as starting to build a wall along its border with Iran to block refugees coming through that way. Central Asian countries (like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) have also seen Afghans try to migrate there.
After nearly 20 years of conflict, the US’s longest war is officially over. It cost nearly $2 trillion dollars and the lives of almost 3,000 American service members, 70,000 Afghan forces, and 50,000 Afghan civilians. The effects of this war will impact generations to come. But for now, all eyes are on the fate of the Taliban — and those left behind in Afghanistan who are still looking for a way out.
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