The United States was the latest of many invaders caught in an Afghan quagmire

When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989 after a futile decade spent propping up a communist regime, several Afghan resistance factions vied for control. In 1996 Kabul fell to a militant Islamic movement called the Taliban (“Students”), which by 1998 controlled 90 percent of the country and was also harboring and training the multinational terrorist organization al-Qaida (“The Base”).

On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaida operatives hijacked four American airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field near Shanksville, Pa., killing themselves and 2,977 other people. The administration of George W. Bush responded by launching the Global War on Terrorism, with Afghanistan its first target.

Operation Enduring Freedom began with air strikes against al-Qaida and Taliban targets on Oct. 7, 2001, though U.S. intelligence agents had contacted Taliban opponents weeks earlier. Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual home, fell on December 9.

  • Struck by two of the four airliners commandeered by al-Qaida terrorists on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan makes a burning backdrop for the Brooklyn Bridge shortly before both towers collapse to the ground. / Reuters
  • Saudi-born al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who targeted the United States primarily for its steadfast support of Israel, had been largely dismissed until the September 11 attacks. / AFP/Getty Images
  • From left: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney confer on the United States’ response on September 12. / Alamy
  • Gunners of the 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, put their 105 mm howitzer through a live-fire exercise near Khost on Oct. 28, 2002. / Getty Images
  • Troops of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Divi- sion fight their way through the bombed-out enemy strongholds of Sherkhankheyl, Marzak and Bobelkiel on March 8, 2002. / Getty Images
  • A 30-ton cache of weapons captured by Special Forces in Khowst province await disposal on July 3, 2002. / Getty Images
  • A B-52 departs a forward air base on April 13, 2006. / Alamy
  • Demonstrating their legendary versatility, three members of the U.S. Army Special Forces ride through Kunduz in search of retreating al-Qaida and Taliban fighters on Aug. 25, 2002. / Getty Images
  • The gunner on a Boeing-Vertol CH-47 Chinook helicopter scans the town of Wazakhwa for signs of al-Qaida or Taliban activity on Sept. 11, 2004. / Getty Images
  • A soldier of the 2nd Bn., 12th Inf. Regt., 4th Inf. Div., fires a captured Taliban rocket-pro- pelled grenade at its former owners in the Pech Valley on June 22, 2012 / Getty Images
  • Members of the 2nd Bn., 327th Inf. Regt., 101st Abn. Div., engage Taliban insurgents during a firefight in Barawala Kalet Valley, Kunar province on March 31, 2011 / U.S. Army
  • Coalition troops patrol using night-vision gear in the Waghaz district of Ghazni province on May 1, 2013. / U.S. Army
  • In a prelude of withdrawals to come, sol- diers and Marines board a Boeing C-17 Globe- master III at Bagram Air Base on May 11, 2013. / Getty Images

That same month al-Qaida militants and the organization’s founder, Osama bin Laden, escaped from the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan. In 2003 President Bush declared an end to major combat operations, and the United States and its allies set about rebuilding the Afghan state, military and police.

Two decades later, despite international efforts, President Barack Obama’s troop “surge” in 2009 and the Navy SEALs killing of Osama bin Laden on May 11, 2011, the Taliban—whose ambitions were always more local than those of al-Qaida—remains a menace.

Indeed, the future of Afghanistan’s elected government appears uncertain as the bulk of forces fighting the United States’ longest war prepare for departure by Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. MH

This article appeared in the September 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe and visit us on Facebook: