Rod Nordland and
Soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States military’s attention turned to Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda’s leaders were based. Many knew an invasion was sure to come.
What no one knew was that Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion to rout Al Qaeda and its hosts, the Taliban, would turn into a war that is now in its 20th year — America’s longest.
It has vexed four American presidencies and outlasted 14 American military commanders. It has also opened a window, for much of the world, onto a country where modernity still clashes with ancient customs and religious edicts.
Here, in chronological order, are images showing the long arc of the war, as seen through the eyes of New York Times photographers.
The War Begins
Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct. 7, 2001, with an American bombing campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. On the ground, American Special Operations forces teams linked up with Afghan militias opposed to the Taliban, mainly the Northern Alliance, to drive the Taliban from power. The capital, Kabul, fell in mid-November, along with the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
In December, Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s leader, escaped to Pakistan through the mountains around Tora Bora. That same month, an interim Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai was installed.
A United Nations Security Council resolution established the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, a military coalition led by the United States.
Drift to Iraq
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to major combat operations in Afghanistan in May 2003. Even with a major reconstruction effort underway there, and about 8,000 American troops in place, President George W. Bush’s administration began shifting combat resources to the war in Iraq.
In 2004, an Afghan assembly drafted a Constitution. Zalmay Khalilzad, then the American ambassador, said it contained “the foundation for democratic institutions.”
The Taliban-led insurgency grew stronger in 2006, carrying out more ambushes and suicide bombings. Despite training and equipment supplied by the United States and ISAF, Afghan security forces could not contain the Taliban resurgence, aided by militants across the border in Pakistan. The United States sent more of its soldiers to the war.
By 2007, about 25,000 American troops were in Afghanistan.
Recommitment and Surge
In February 2009, the new American president, Barack Obama, declared a recommitment to the war and deployed 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, adding to the 36,000 already there.
In December, Mr. Obama announced a “surge” meant to build and train an Afghan security force that would be strong enough to assume responsibility for fighting the insurgency. His plan included sending 30,000 more American troops, bringing the total number to nearly 100,000 by mid-2010.
In 2012, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, began blaming United States and coalition troops for rising civilian casualties, as his relationships with American leaders deteriorated.
Afghans took over most security responsibilities in 2013, with the U.S.-led coalition’s forces shifting to training and counterterrorism operations.
A Taliban Resurgence
On Dec. 31, 2014, the combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended, but the American military presence in the country did not. Mr. Obama announced a timetable for the withdrawal of most troops by the end of 2016.
After a 2014 election marred by fraud, Ashraf Ghani became president, but he signed a power-sharing agreement with his top opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.
On the battlefield, the Afghan security forces increasingly struggled against the Taliban taking heavy casualties and losing territory.
In August 2017, President Donald J. Trump said that while his first instinct had been to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, he would continue to prosecute the war. He stressed that withdrawal decisions would be based on combat conditions, not on predetermined timelines.
Peace Talks and a Historic Deal
In late 2018, American and Taliban negotiators began holding peace talks. The discussions continued well into 2020, in Doha, Qatar. (The Afghan government was excluded from the talks — the Taliban refused to meet with its officials.)
On Feb. 29, 2020, the United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban, opening the door to a gradual, final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the beginning of direct talks between the Afghan government and the insurgency to determine the country’s future.
As of February 2020, about 12,000 American troops were still in the country.
The End of U.S. Involvement
Peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government started in September 2020 after a contentious Taliban prisoner release, but stalled by early 2021. Afghan security forces were on the defense, keeping the Taliban at bay with limited U.S. support and slumping morale. A targeted assassination campaign directed at civil servants, journalists, human rights workers, and former and current members of the security forces sweeps through the country’s urban areas. Most killings go unclaimed.
After a review of the 2020 agreement made with the Taliban, the newly elected U.S. president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., calls for a complete withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that began the United States’ unending wars.
The United States has spent about $2 trillion on the war effort. About 2,400 American troops and nearly 700 troops from other nations in the coalition have died. More than 40,000 civilians have been killed, and among the Afghan security forces, about 60,000 are estimated to have died since the start of the war.
The next phase of the war is anything but certain. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, is being undermined on all sides by an emboldened Taliban, impatient international supporters and a disenfranchised electorate. The administration faces the choice to step aside or fight the Taliban for as long as possible. Many Afghans believe this could lead to a civil war.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.
Produced by Craig Allen, David Furst, Mikko Takkunen and Gaia Tripoli.