The History of the U.S. War in Afghanistan

U.S. Soldiers Provide Security Around Kandahar Airfield

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The attacks of September 11, 2001 surprised many Americans; the decision a month later to wage a war in Afghanistan, to end the ability of the government to offer safe haven to Al Qaeda, may have seemed equally surprising. Read on to understand how the war began in, but not against, Afghanistan in 2001, and who the actors are now. 

1979: Soviet Forces Enter Afghanistan

Soviet Afghan war
Mikhail Evstafiev (creative commons license)

Many would argue that the story of how 9/11 came about goes back, at least, to 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, with which it shares a border.

Afghanistan had experienced several coups since 1973 when the Afghan monarchy was overthrown by Daud Khan, who was sympathetic to Soviet overtures.

Subsequent coups reflected struggles within Afghanistan among factions with different ideas about how Afghanistan should be governed and whether it should be communist, and with degrees of warmth toward the Soviet Union. The Soviets intervened following the overthrow of a pro-communist leader. In late December 1979, after several months of evident military preparation, they invaded Afghanistan.

At that time, the Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in the Cold War, a global competition for the fealty of other nations. The United States was, thus, deeply interested in whether the Soviet Union would succeed in establishing a communist government loyal to Moscow in Afghanistan. In order to forestall that possibility, the United States began funding insurgent forces to oppose the Soviets

1979-1989: Afghan Mujahideen Battle the Soviets

Hindu Kush Mountains
The mujahideen battled the Soviets in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush Mountains. Wikipedia

The U.S.-funded Afghan insurgents were called mujahideen, an Arabic word that means "strugglers" or "strivers." The word has its origins in Islam and is related to the word jihad, but in the context of the Afghan war, it may be best understood as referring to "resistance."

The mujahideen were organized into different political parties, and armed and supported by different countries, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as well as the United States, and they gained significantly in power and money during the course of the Afghan-Soviet war.

The legendary fierceness of the mujahideen fighters, their stringent, extreme version of Islam and their cause drew interest and support from Arab Muslims seeking an opportunity to experience, and experiment with, waging jihad.

Among those drawn to Afghanistan were a wealthy, ambitious, and pious young Saudi named Osama bin Laden and the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, Ayman Al Zawahiri.

1980s: Osama bin Laden Recruits Arabs for Jihad in Afghanistan

Osama bin Laden

The idea that the 9/11 attacks have their roots in the Soviet-Afghan war comes from bin Laden's role in it. During much of the war he, and Ayman Al Zawahiri, the Egyptian head of Islamic Jihad, an Egyptian group, lived in neighboring Pakistan. There, they cultivated Arab recruits to fight with the Afghan mujahideen. This, loosely, was the beginning of the network of roving jihadists that would become Al Qaeda later.

It was also during this period that bin Laden's ideology and goals, and the role of jihad within them, evolved.

1996: Taliban Take Over Kabul, and End Mujahideen Rule


By 1989, the mujahideen had driven the Soviets from Afghanistan, and three years later, in 1992, they managed to wrest control of the government in Kabul from the Marxist president, Muhammad Najibullah.

Severe infighting among the mujahideen factions continued, however, under the presidency of mujahid leader Burhanuddin Rabbani. Their war against each other devastated Kabul: tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives, and infrastructure was destroyed by rocket fire.

This chaos, and the exhaustion of the Afghans, permitted the Taliban to gain power. Cultivated by Pakistan, the Taliban emerged first in Kandahar, gained control of Kabul in 1996 and controlled most of the entire country by 1998. Their extremely severe laws based on retrograde interpretations of the Quran, and a disregard for human rights, were repugnant to the world community.

2001: U.S. Airstrikes Topple Taliban Government, But Not Taliban Insurgency

U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan
U.S. Government

On October 7, 2001, military strikes against Afghanistan were launched by the United States and an international coalition that included Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, and France. The attack was military retaliation for the September 11, 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda on American targets. It was called Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan. The attack followed several weeks of a diplomatic effort to have al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, handed over by the Taliban government.

At 1 pm on the afternoon of the 7th, President Bush addressed the United States and the world:

Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime. . . .

The Taliban were toppled shortly thereafter, and a government headed by Hamid Karzai installed. There were initial claims that the brief war had been successful. But the insurgent Taliban emerged in 2006 in force and begun using suicide tactics copied from jihadist groups elsewhere in the region.

2003 to 2018

Special Forces in Northern Afghanistan
Scott Nelson / Getty Images

In 2003 NATO deployed troops to Afghanistan for a peace-keeping mission. Tensions remained and violence escalated, with 2008 the most deadly year since the invasion in 2001.

President Obama approved adding more U.S. troops in order to bring the conflict to a resolution. At its peak in 2009, there were around 100,000 Americans in Afghanistan, whose purpose was to weaken the Taliban and to help prop up Afghan institutions.

In 2011, Osama Bin Laden is killed in Pakistan during a nail-biting, mission in Pakistan.

In 2014, combat missions formally ended with the signing of a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan. However, with Taliban forces again gaining power, by 2016 Obama recommited troops to remain in the country.

While an opponent of nation building in Afghanistan, President Trump in 2017 ordered the bombing of ISIL (ISIS) fighters in Iraq, dropping a massive bomb that killed 96 according to Al Jazeera and destroyed many tunnels and underground structures.

The longest conflict in American history is currently in a stalemate, with thousands of U.S. soldiers still bolstering the Afghan government and trying to weaken the Taliban's grip on the country.