In Depth: The Afghan War

January 1, 2019

The ongoing Afghan War refers to the military intervention by US, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and allied forces in Afghanistan, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in America.


The aim of Afghan war was to dismantle Al-Qaeda and deny it safe havens in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power. 


Army Capt. Christopher Young engages with a civilian role-player during a training exercise at Fort Polk, La.

Army photo by Staff Sgt. Sierra A. Melendez


How Did It All Begin?


The Afghan War was sparked by the terrorists hijacking of four airplanes in the US on September 11, 2001.


Two airliners were deliberately flown into each of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, while another targeted the Pentagon in Virginia. The fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.


The total loss of life on 9/11 was nearly 3,000. The 19 hijackers were members of al-Qaeda, the global extremist network founded and led by Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden. 


Commencement of War on Terror 


On October 7, 2001, less than a month after the September 11 attacks, US President George W Bush launched operation "Enduring Freedom" also known as the Afghan War, after the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. 


The aim of this Afghan War was to find Osama Bin Laden, remove the Taliban from power, and prevent the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist haven. The US was supported by a broad coalition of international forces including the Afghan Northern Alliance, United Kingdom and Canada.


In December 2001, the United Nations Security Council established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to oversee military operations in the country and train Afghan National Security Forces.


A Cobra Strike sniper scans the horizon for threats during a live-fire exercise for the Commandos training to become the Afghan National Army's (ANA) newest Special Operations unit, the 6th Cobra Strike Kandak.

NSOCC-A photo by Spc. Austin Boucher


Fall of Taliban


Kabul fell to coalition forces on 13 October 2001. In early December, fierce fighting took place near the Tora Bora caves, where Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden were believed to be. Both men evaded capture and went into hiding.


Kandahar, the last major Taliban stronghold, fell on 7 December 2001, marking the end of the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan.


Dogs follow US Army soldiers as they patrol through a village near Combat Outpost Herrera in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Oct. 13, 2009.


Resurgence of Taliban


Beaten but unbowed, in 2002 the Taliban began a lengthy period of insurgency in an attempt to re-establish their power base. Meanwhile, international attention turned to Iraq, which US-led coalition forces invaded in 2003.


As attention from Afghan War diverted, the Taliban and other armed groups regrouped in their strongholds in the south and east of Afghanistan, from where they could easily travel to and from Pakistan’s tribal areas.


USAF Staff Sgt. Michael Bobola pulls security of a C-130J Super Hercules at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

USAF photo by Senior Airman Xavier Navarro.


In 2008, the American command on the ground called for manpower to continue the Afghan War against the Taliban. President Bush agreed to send additional soldiers and by mid-2008 there were 48,500 US troops in Afghanistan.


While ISAF continued to battle the Taliban insurgency, fighting crossed into neighboring North-West Pakistan. In 2004, the Pakistani Army began to clash with local tribes hosting al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. 


The US military launched drone attacks in Pakistan to kill insurgent leaders. This resulted in the start of an insurgency in Waziristan in 2007.


Female CST-2 member shown asking an Afghan child November, 2011 in Afghanistan if she was enrolled in school and if not, if she’d like to go.


Barack Obama Increases Troops in Afghanistan


In 2009, in the first months of the presidency of Barack Obama - there was a surge in the number of American soldiers in Afghan War to around 68,000.


In December, Obama raised the strength of US forces in Afghan War to around 100,000. The objective, the US stated, was to militarily degrade the Taliban and to strengthen Afghan institutions. 


Although there had initially been broad public support for the Afghan war in the US and UK, polls suggested falling confidence levels as costs spiralled and casualty numbers rose. 


Afghan Lt. Gen. Afzal Aman alongside members of the Kabul Security Force (KSF), including British Army Brigadier Simon Humphrey, KSF commander, and Australian Army Col. Rich Bushby conduct an assurance visit with Afghan National Army (ANA) Soldiers at City Gate Sang-E-Nawishta in Kabul, Afghanistan.

NATO photo by Capt. Leanna Litsch, Kabul Security Force Public Affairs


Bin Laden is Killed


Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, who was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks that started the war, was killed on May 2, 2011 during an operation by US Special Forces in Pakistan, where he was in hiding. 


Al-Qaeda swore to avenge Bin Laden's death. A statement posted on jihadist websites stated: "We will remain, God willing, a curse chasing the Americans and their agents, following them outside and inside their countries."


𝐔𝐒 𝐌𝐚𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐞 𝐋𝐚𝐧𝐜𝐞 𝐂𝐩𝐥. 𝐈𝐬𝐚𝐢𝐚𝐡 𝐒𝐜𝐡𝐮𝐥𝐭, 𝐣𝐨𝐤𝐞𝐬 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐀𝐟𝐠𝐡𝐚𝐧 𝐜𝐡𝐢𝐥𝐝𝐫𝐞𝐧 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐚 𝐀𝐟𝐠𝐡𝐚𝐧 𝐍𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧𝐚𝐥 𝐏𝐨𝐥𝐢𝐜𝐞 𝐦𝐞𝐦𝐛𝐞𝐫 𝐨𝐮𝐭𝐬𝐢𝐝𝐞 𝐚 𝐥𝐨𝐜𝐚𝐥 𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐧𝐜𝐞, 𝐍𝐨𝐯. 𝟐𝟐, 𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟏


NATO Countries Agree to Troop Withdrawal


In June 2011, US President Barack Obama announced that 10,000 US troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, and an additional 23,000 would leave by 2012. Canada withdrew most of its troops in 2011.


In May 2012, NATO leaders endorsed an exit strategy for withdrawing their forces. UN-backed peace talks have since taken place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. 


In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to end British combat operations in Afghanistan by 2015, although British forces still remain in the country as advisors


End of Combat Operations


In May 2014, the US announced that its combat operations would end in 2014, leaving just a small residual force in the country until the end of 2016. 


In September 2014, Afghanistan signed a bilateral security accord with the US and a similar text with NATO stating that 12,500 foreign soldiers, of which 9,800 are Americans, will remain in the country in 2015, after the end of the NATO combat mission by late 2014.


From the beginning of 2015, American troops were charged with two missions: "anti-terrorist" operations against al-Qaeda and training Afghan forces.


Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilots fly near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, April 5, 2017.

Army photo by Capt. Brian Harris

'MOAB' - Mega Bomb Against ISIL


On April 13, 2017, the US military dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat, hitting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL, also known as ISIS) positions – including a network of tunnels and caves - in Eastern Afghanistan, killing 96 fighters.

In July, the American army killed ISIL's new leader in Afghanistan, the third such chief slain by Washington and Kabul.

New Strategy 

Amid a resurgent Taliban, on July 6, 2016, Obama again slowed down the pace of withdrawal, saying that 8,400 US troops would remain in Afghanistan in 2017.
On February 1, 2017, a US government report said that losses of Afghan security forces had climbed by 35 percent in 2016 compared with the previous year.


On February 9, the US general in command of the NATO force, General John Nicholson, warned that he needed thousands more troops, telling Congress: "I believe we're in a stalemate."

On August 21, the new US president, Donald Trump cleared the way for the deployment of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan in his first formal address to the nation as commander-in-chief.

Following the president's speech, US Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that America and several allies had committed to boosting their troop numbers in Afghanistan.

US Army Pfc. Kristina Batty dons a headscarf to meet with female Afghan villagers in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, May 5, 2012.

US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod


Taliban Launches Major Attacks Amid US Escalation


In response to new US strategy, the Taliban carried out a series of bold terror attacks in Kabul that killed more than 115 people amid a broader upsurge in violence. 


The attacks came as the Trump administration implemented its Afghanistan plan, deploying troops across rural Afghanistan to advise Afghan brigades and launching airstrikes against opium labs to decimate the Taliban’s finances.

Disclaimer: The appearance of US Department of Defense (DoD) visual information on this website does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. 

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