In October 2001, military forces from the United States and Great Britain launched Operation Enduring Freedom against a loose coalition of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. The aim of the campaign was to dismantle terrorist training facilities and infrastructure, and to hunt down, capture, or kill leaders of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden (1957–2011). The operation was a military response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The United States pulled most of its troops out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014, leaving behind several thousand to train and support Afghan security forces.
In 2015, a resurgence in violence by the Taliban prompted President Barack Obama (1961–) to reverse his decision to end the Afghanistan war in his presidency. About 8,400 US troops remained behind to act as military trainers and help in the fight against terrorists groups. In 2017, President Donald Trump (1946–) cited continued violence in Afghanistan as the reason for ordering an increase in US troops to the nation.
Following ten years of civil war, and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, several groups of Mujahideen warlords vied for control of the nation and its capital. As part of a plan to exert power in the region, neighboring Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency became allied with a small student movement whose aim would be to rid Afghanistan of its gang-like bandits, tribal violence, and political corruption. The Taliban, as it became known, would eventually take over the capital, Kabul, in 1996, and consolidate power over all but a small corner of the country held by their political rivals, the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (UIF), also known as the Northern Alliance.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a factional group known as al-Qaeda was founded by Palestinian Islamic scholar Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (1941–1989), with financial assistance from Osama bin Laden, and had been formed to recruit and train Mujahideen fighters from outside Afghanistan to resist the occupation. Following the Soviet withdrawal, and removal of the Soviet-backed government, al-Qaeda chose to expand the scope of its operations to support ideological struggles worldwide. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and deployment of US and other allied forces in the region, bin Laden became a vocal critic of Saudi and Egyptian policies in the region, was exiled to Sudan, and later relocated al-Qaeda to Afghanistan, under the protection of the Taliban government there.
By 1998, bin Laden and others had declared a global Jihad (Holy War) against foreign, namely American, forces in Muslim lands, and called on his followers to “kill the Americans and their allies,” wherever and whenever they can. On September 11, 2001, nineteen members of al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial aircraft, crashing them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. Although bin Laden initially denied any direct involvement in the attacks, American officials laid blame for the atrocity squarely on bin Laden and his organization.
The War on Terror
Nine days after the attacks on US soil, President George W. Bush (1946–) issued an ultimatum to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, demanding they hand over members of al-Qaeda’s leadership, including bin Laden and other known terrorists, and dismantle all terrorist training facilities. The Taliban leadership refused to comply, and on October 7, 2001, American and allied forces began air and ground assaults on Kabul and other key targets within Afghanistan.
The initial assault came from aerial strikes aimed at weakening the Taliban’s communications and control infrastructure. On the ground, special forces units were deployed alongside those of the Northern Alliance, whose aim was to eliminate the Taliban regime and take control of the government. American ground forces focused their efforts on hunting down Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda operatives.
By the end of November, several key cities had been re-taken by American and Northern Alliance personnel, including Mazar-i-Sharif on November 9th, and the capital, Kabul, on November 13th. In early December, CIA paramilitary and US commando units, accompanied by several tribal militias, surrounded and recaptured Kandahar, the last Taliban-held city to fall to allied forces. Among those fighting for the Taliban was its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960–2013), who escaped, and was later believed to be directing insurgent activities in the region.
Following the fall of Kabul, large numbers of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters had retreated to the massive cave complexes, known as Tora Bora, in the mountains southeast of the capital. In December, British and American special forces, along with anti-Taliban militia, engaged al-Qaeda fighters in the Tora Bora region, many of whom managed to escape through the White Mountains and into western Pakistan’s tribal regions. Several high-ranking officials who were present during the battle reported that bin Laden, who was thought to be hiding in the caves, also managed to escape into Pakistan. Many of those captured during the battle were later transferred to the Guantanamo military detention facility in Cuba.
Shortly after the establishment of the Afghan Interim Authority, the United Nations authorized the creation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), made up of forces from 38 NATO and non-NATO countries, to establish security in and around the capital, Kabul. The ISAF mission would later expand to include four regional commands covering the entire country. As the conflict in Afghanistan continued into 2007 and 2008, combat operations by ISAF units began to escalate, particularly in the southern portion of the country, where Taliban militants had begun stepping up attacks on ISAF and allied forces.
In 2002, the Chair of the Afghan Interim Authority, Hamid Karzai (1957–), was elected president by a council of tribal leaders, and again, in 2004, in a nationwide election; elections to fill 250 seats in parliament were also completed in 2005. Karzai won a second nationwide election in 2009. However, political violence and insurgent activities continued, targeting Afghan’s leaders, aid workers, and ISAF. Reconstruction and development has been stepped up, however, with aid from United States and other international donors. In addition to rebuilding roads and other infrastructure projects, several countries are providing medical and food assistance, as well as police and military training.
Since 2007, American, British, and other ISAF units have conducted a number of offensive campaigns against Taliban forces. The Taliban and al-Qaeda also began to step up their offensive against coalition forces, having regrouped and gained strength while hiding out in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2008, American officials renewed their commitment in the region by increasing troop strength to almost 50,000 by June of that year. In September, the war crossed the border into Pakistan when US Army commandos raided a village thought to be a base for Taliban operatives. For the Americans and their British allies, 2008 would be the deadliest year, with over 100 combat casualties each.
At the end of 2008, and the beginning of 2009, the Taliban managed to cut off several major NATO supply routes through the mountains of western Pakistan. Relations between the US and Pakistan were further strained when Pakistani forces allegedly fired on a US helicopter operating near the frontier region; American forces also began to step up their use of drone attacks against suspected Taliban outposts in both Afghanistan and the mountains of western Pakistan.
In 2010, following a series of meetings between officials of the Taliban and the United Nations, President Karzai announced that he would begin reaching out to leaders of the Taliban in a gesture of reconciliation. US President Barack Obama also announced a proposed drawdown of American troops in 2011, but not before initiating several new offensives in 2010 against Taliban insurgent strongholds in the southern part of the country. Operation Mashtarak, an offensive begun in February of 2010, involved more than 15,000 Afghan, American, British, and ISAF troops, and was aimed at wiping out the Taliban insurgency in and around the district of Marjah. Government and military officials had described the operation as a turning point in the war against the Taliban, though by this time, many had already begun to call for political settlement, and an immediate end to military operations in the country.
Obama had campaigned on a promise of ending US involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2014, he announced plans to end combat missions in Afghanistan and reduce the number of troops to about 9,800, with further cuts planned for 2015 and a complete withdrawal by 2016. However, renewed attacks by the Taliban prompted him to reverse course and order 8,400 troops to remain in the nation past 2016.
The Taliban staged several significant attacks in 2016 and 2017. Further threatening to destabilize the situation in Afghanistan was the presence of the militant terror organization Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS also began orchestrating terrorist activities in the nation and captured the key mountain stronghold of Tora Bora in 2017. In August 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that he would be ramping up US troop strength in Afghanistan to deal with the threat. By 2018, the number of US troops had been increased to about 15,000.