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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.

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. 

this article first appeared in Military History magazine

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