America’s longest war may soon be coming to an end. President Biden is announcing that all U.S. troops will be leaving Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear — wipe out al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban government. Even though none of the hijackers or planners were Afghans, the Bush administration categorized Taliban leaders as terrorists because they had given al-Qaeda sanctuary and refused to hand over its ringleader: Osama bin Laden.
Within six months, the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were dead, captured or in hiding. Instead of withdrawing, however, the U.S. government started to blur its strategic objective — something that would persist for the next 19 years.
[The Afghanistan papers: A secret history of the war]
Toppling the Taliban
In 2001, after initial airstrikes by the United States and Britain on military targets, the United States sends about 1,300 troops to Afghanistan.
One after another, cities controlled by the Taliban begin to fall with the help of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance soldiers. By December 2001, the U.S. force grows to 2,500 as troops scour the mountainous Tora Bora region looking for bin Laden. The Taliban is largely ousted, and an interim Afghan government is established.
LEFT: CHANGHATAY, 2001 | Northern Alliance fighters. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post) RIGHT: TALOQAN, 2001 | Civilians welcome old friends and family back to the city the morning after it was liberated from Taliban control. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)
LEFT: WHITE HOUSE, 2002 | President George W. Bush meets with Hamid Karzai, then chairman of the Interim Administration of Afghanistan. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post) RIGHT: PENTAGON, 2001 | Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in the dining room of his offices at the Pentagon. (Michael Robinson-Chavez/The Washington Post)
After victories in the early 2000s, President George W. Bush decides to keep a light force to ensure al-Qaeda would never return. To accomplish that, U.S. officials say it is necessary to help the Afghans build a stable government and launch reconstruction initiatives. But the strategy runs counter to Bush’s early promise not to engage in nation-building.
[Despite vows the U.S. wouldn’t get mired in ‘nation-building,’ it’s wasted billions doing just that]
In March 2003, U.S. forces invade Iraq, and Afghanistan becomes an afterthought. Just two months later, Bush declares an end to “major combat operations” in Iraq. On the same day, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visits Kabul and announces an end to “major combat activity” in Afghanistan. But the conflict is far from over.
After serving as interim leader, Hamid Karzai is elected president in Afghanistan’s first national democratic election in 2004. He builds a personal rapport with Bush; the two leaders chat frequently by videoconference. But relations gradually sour. The U.S. military continues its nation-building campaign by training the Afghan national police force, a task that proves wrought with major challenges.
By the end of 2007, the number of U.S. troops rises to 25,000. Still, Iraq is the priority. And security in Afghanistan worsens. The Taliban rebuilds itself, and parts of the country grow increasingly unstable.
LEFT: KABUL, 2004 | A banner depicting President Hamid Karzai shortly after the country’s election. (Emilio Morenatti/AP) RIGHT: OUTSIDE KANDAHAR, 2004 | Afghan police stand guard in a poppy field that’s about to be destroyed. (David Guttenfelder/AP)
LEFT: KABUL, 2004 | An Afghan worker unloads bricks from a kiln. (Emilio Morenatti/AP) RIGHT: KABUL POLICE ACADEMY, 2004 | Afghan police trainees at the Kabul academy. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
LEFT: KABUL, 2006 | Afghan men and boys gather on a Kabul hillside for a kite-flying competition once banned by the Taliban. (David Guttenfelder/AP) RIGHT: KABUL, 2006 | New Afghan army recruits stand at attention during a graduation ceremony at the Afghan National Army base. (David Guttenfelder/AP)
The Afghanistan surge
In December 2009, President Barack Obama announces a troop surge: He will deploy 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 70,000 that he and Bush had previously authorized. NATO and other U.S. allies will increase their forces to 50,000.
Karzai wins reelection in 2009, narrowly avoiding a runoff thanks to a massive ballot-stuffing campaign. His opponents, and many independent observers, accuse his side of trying to steal the election. The outcome puts Obama administration officials in a box. They had promised to root out corruption, but they do not want to alienate Karzai. In the end, U.S. officials swallow their objections.
[Bush and Obama had polar-opposite plans to win the war. Both were destined to fail.]
In February 2010, coalition forces launch one of the largest military operations of the war, to retake Marja, in Helmand province, from the Taliban. Initially labeled as a military success, the operation fails to establish a long-term working government in the southern region. Large parts of the province eventually fall back into the hands of the Taliban. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan reaches 100,000. U.S. troops suffer more casualties in 2010 than in any other year of the war.
LEFT: KABUL, 2009 | Campaign leaflets float to the ground at a campaign rally for Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah. (David Guttenfelder/AP) RIGHT: KABUL, 2009 | Women leave a Kabul polling station after voting. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
LEFT: KANDAHAR PROVINCE, 2010 | U.S. soldiers wounded by an IED are transported by medevac. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post) RIGHT: MARJA, 2010 | Marines on patrol in Marja, in Helmand province. (Andrea Bruce for The Washington Post)
Killing bin Laden
U.S. Special Operations forces kill bin Laden during a raid at a compound in Pakistan in May 2011. Later that year, Obama orders a partial, staged withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and by the end of the year U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq. Throughout 2012 and 2013, U.S. and NATO officials work to put Afghan forces in the lead for security across Afghanistan, despite worrying signs suggesting that local troops remain unequipped to keep the Taliban at bay without substantial foreign assistance.
In October 2014, the United States and Britain hand over two major bases — Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion — to the Afghan military, and on Dec. 28, 2014, the NATO combat mission, Operation Enduring Freedom, officially ends. It is replaced by two missions: Resolute Support, in which NATO forces provide training and support to Afghan forces, and Freedom’s Sentinel, in which U.S. forces continue to carry out Special Operations raids and other counterterrorism operations with some assistance from Afghan units.
LEFT: JAGHATU, 2012 | Soldiers fire heavy artillery during training at Combat Outpost Jaghatu. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post) RIGHT: KABUL, 2013 | An open-air vegetable market where many amputees work. (Javier Manzano for The Washington Post)
LEFT: FORT CAMPBELL, KY., 2014 | U.S. Army personnel board a plane for a deployment to Afghanistan. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post) RIGHT: FORT CAMPBELL, KY., 2014 | Army Spec. Caleb McKinnon embraces his wife, Savannah McKinnon, as he and others prepare for deployment. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
By the time Obama left office in January 2017, his promise to withdraw all U.S. troops is broken. There are 8,400 U.S. troops remaining. His successor, President Donald Trump, also breaks his vow to remove all U.S. troops. In September 2017, he announces the U.S. troop presence will increase by several thousand. Trump says, “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.”
In 2018, Afghanistan ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International. The Trump administration continues to escalate the war from the skies to prevent the Taliban from taking over. A U.N. report declares 2018 as the deadliest year for civilians in the conflict, with more than 3,800 killed. It notes a particular increase in child casualties from U.S. and coalition airstrikes.
As Trump’s time in office winds down, his administration reaches a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that sets the stage for the gradual withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the country. On Nov. 20, acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller says troop numbers will be reduced from about 5,000 to 2,500 by Jan. 15.
LEFT: KABUL, 2017 | U.S. service members deployed for Mission Resolute Support ride in a helicopter over Kabul. (Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images) RIGHT: BAGRAM AIR BASE, 2019 | President Donald Trump addresses members of the military during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Today, there are officially around 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, though unofficially that number, which fluctuates, is estimated at 3,500. There are an additional 7,000 coalition and NATO troops.
More than 775,000 U.S. troops have been deployed over the 19-year conflict, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 have died and more than 20,600 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures. Since 2009, when the United Nations began systematically documenting civilian casualties, at least 100,000 Afghan civilians have been injured or killed.