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America’s Longest War: A Visual History of 19 Years in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan has spanned the administrations of presidents George W. Bush,

Barack Obama


Donald Trump.

A few months into his administration, President Biden announced a full U.S. troop withdrawal by Sept. 11, the 20-year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan,” Mr. Biden said. “Two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”

The costs to America have been high. The lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops have been lost, and military expenses have exceeded $2.26 trillion, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.


What geopolitical implications do you think the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will have? Join the conversation below.

A conditional peace deal signed in February 2020 between the U.S. and the Taliban was meant to pave the way for warring Afghan factions to bring years of fighting to an end. But subsequent power-sharing talks between the Afghan government and Taliban stalled as both sides waited to see what position the new U.S. president would adopt. Mr. Biden’s promise to leave Afghanistan for good, regardless of the conditions on the ground, lessens the incentive for the Taliban to make concessions in those talks.

U.S. officials say they are concerned the U.S.-backed government in Kabul might be unable to prevent the Taliban from widening its control over swaths of the country, allowing extremist groups to operate there and undoing advances in governance, including on women’s rights.

The stakes are immense. The resurgent Taliban now control or contest more territory than at any time since the war began. Afghanistan security forces remain dependent on U.S. air and ground support. The coming months will determine whether any peace holds or whether Afghanistan slides back into violence.

Here is a look back at the war that has run more than 19 years, longer than World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined.

Afghans gather at a bustling bazaar in downtown Kandahar that is almost fully open despite U.S. airstrikes, on Nov. 2, 2001.




The Sept. 11 Attacks, the Invasion of Afghanistan and the Toppling of the Taliban

Fifteen days after 19 al Qaeda operatives hijack four commercial airliners and crash them into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington and a field in Somerset County in Pennsylvania, a dozen Central Intelligence Agency operatives carrying $10 million in cash land by helicopter in northern Afghanistan. Their task is to lay the groundwork for a U.S. invasion to end Afghanistan’s use as a terrorist base and to bring the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks to justice. No Taliban or other Afghans participated in the attacks, but the Taliban regime had given sanctuary to al Qaeda and its leader, Saudi-born

Osama bin Laden.

In launching America’s global war on terror in the aftermath of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush had declared: “We will make no distinctions between those who planned these acts and those who harbor them.”

Northern Alliance fighters look on as around 500 Taliban soldiers surrender on Nov. 24, 2001.



Anti-Taliban soldiers move toward the front lines in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan in December 2001.


Chris Hondros/Getty Images

U.S. airstrikes on al Qaeda positions in the mountains of Tora Bora.


Kate Brooks/Redux Pictures

U.S. combat operations officially begin Oct. 7, with airstrikes against al Qaeda training camps and Taliban military installations. Under pressure from American air power and an anti-Taliban coalition of Afghan warlords and tribal leaders, the Taliban regime unravels quickly and collapses on Dec. 9. Taliban fighters and al Qaeda militants scatter, some to the mountains and other remote areas of Afghanistan, others to Pakistan. The American commitment to the Taliban’s overthrow consists of about 425 CIA operatives and Special Forces personnel, plus massive air power.

In early December 2001, bin Laden is tracked to the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan. Following two weeks of fierce fighting between al Qaeda fighters and local militias, accompanied by heavy U.S. bombing, he escapes on horseback.

On Dec. 5, 2001, a United Nations-organized conference of Afghan political factions meeting in Bonn, Germany, forms a government headed by

Hamid Karzai

and creates an international peacekeeping force to maintain security in Kabul.

Hamid Karzai, who in December 2001 becomes chairman of the transitional administration following the Taliban’s ouster, meets with tribal leaders and military commanders.


Kate Brooks/Redux Pictures

By March 2002, the U.S. force in Afghanistan grows to 7,200, as U.S. and local forces scour Tora Bora for bin Laden and hunt down al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the rest of the country. Within months of the Taliban’s fall, however, the Pentagon begins shifting military and intelligence assets away from Afghanistan to prepare for the invasion of

Saddam Hussein’s


In April 2002, President Bush expands U.S. war aims in Afghanistan, as he calls for the reconstruction of an Afghanistan that is free from the evil of the Taliban and a “better place” to live. The U.S. military assumes a central role in coordinating humanitarian aid and expanding the authority of the Kabul government.

On May 1, 2003—some six weeks after the U.S. invades Iraq—Defense Secretary

Donald Rumsfeld

declares an end to major combat in Afghanistan, saying a “period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction” has begun. At the time, there are about 8,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

Members of the 82nd Airborne duck as a Black Hawk helicopter prepares to extract soldiers who were searching remote villages in southeastern Afghanistan in September 2002.


Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images


Democratic Milestones, Faltering Reform and Taliban Resurgence

In 2004, Afghans achieve two political milestones amid sporadic fighting in the south and east of the country. In January, some 500 tribal and community leaders agree on a constitution that creates a strong presidential system to unite Afghanistan’s fractious ethnic groups. In October, Mr. Karzai becomes the first democratically elected head of Afghanistan. While fraud allegations mar his election victory, the vote is hailed as a landmark in establishing democratic institutions.

Reconstruction and reform aimed at creating a stake for Afghans in the Kabul government lags, however, and in mid-2006, violence escalates across the country, especially in the south where, along with neighboring Pakistan, the Taliban are based. By year’s end, suicide attacks have quintupled from the previous year, and remotely detonated bombings have more than doubled.

The Taliban revival is blamed on Pakistan’s support for the insurgency and on the weakness and ineffectiveness of the Karzai government. Many Afghans still lack basic services and adequate police forces, and there are too few international forces to assist with security. Corruption worsens and reaches the highest levels of government. Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid pour into the country and the U.S., in one way or another, pays for almost all of the operations of the Afghan government and the security forces fighting for it.

Afghans in Kabul vote at the Jaffaria Mosque in their first-ever presidential election on Oct. 9, 2004.


Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The Taliban resurgence is overshadowed by the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the need for American troops and other resources to end inter-communal violence there. U.S. forces in Afghanistan remain at just over 20,000 at the end of 2006, when Defense Secretary

Robert Gates

chastises NATO countries for not sending more troops.

“Our progress in Afghanistan is real but it is fragile,” Mr. Gates says. “At this time, many allies are unwilling to share the risks, commit the resources, and follow through on collective commitments to this mission and to each other. As a result, we risk allowing what has been achieved in Afghanistan to slip away.”

On Aug. 22, 2008, residents of a village in Herat province’s Shindand district are preparing a memorial service for a local man who recently died. They are cooking food at night over outdoor fires when a U.S. helicopter gunship opens fire. A U.N. investigation later finds that 90 civilians, including 60 children, were killed in the airstrikes. It is the deadliest case of civilian casualties since the war began in 2001. Civilian casualties, which alienate the Afghan public and damage the U.S. military’s relationship with the government, are a persistent theme throughout the war.

A soldier rests after a day of heavy fighting at the Restrepo outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in 2007.



Soldiers with the 173rd division and Afghan workers hide in a bunker at the KOP forward operating base as the Taliban fire mortars.


Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage

A 2010 view of the Arghandab River, which separates the two volatile districts west of Kandahar city—Panjwaii and Zhari.


Louie Palu/Alexia Foundation/ZUMA PRESS


The Obama Surge

President Obama declares Afghanistan, not Iraq, the most important front in the U.S. war against terrorism. When he is sworn in as U.S. president on Jan. 20, 2009, the Pentagon has 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. By year’s end, there are 67,000 American forces and 30,000 more on the way.

U.S. officials say the Afghan war effort has been unfocused and under-resourced, and havens that Pakistan provides to militants have undermined the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda. The goal of the troop surge, Mr. Obama says, is to take the fight to al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban and to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces.

While overseeing the largest troop deployments of the war, Mr. Obama also puts a timeline on the American presence in Afghanistan, saying he will start drawing down U.S. forces in July 2011. The partial schedule—he doesn’t say when the troop withdrawal will be completed—is an acknowledgment of shrinking public approval for the war. It is also a message to the Kabul government that the American troop commitment isn’t open-ended and that responsibility for fighting the war will sooner, not later, be turned over to Afghans. Donald Trump and other critics will later say the timeline only served as a signal to the Taliban that they can wait out the U.S.

An Afghan woman in a remote area of Badakshan holds her sick daughter before seeing a midwife from a mobile health unit funded by a United Nations agency in 2009.


Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage

On Aug. 5, 2009, a missile strikes a villa in Pakistan’s South Waziristan district, bordering Afghanistan. The drone strike tears apart a Taliban commander named

Baitullah Mehsud,

who is sitting on a balcony of the villa with his wife. The targeted assault comes as Mr. Obama ramps up the use of drones to fight Taliban and al Qaeda militants, especially in Pakistan, whose powerful military and intelligence service provides the Taliban with clandestine aid, weapons and money. The sharply expanded drone war, most of it conducted in secret, reflects Mr. Obama’s ambition to keep up the war against al Qaeda, Taliban and other Islamist militants while extricating the U.S. military from intractable, costly ground wars in Asia and elsewhere.

In July 2009, U.S. Marines launch a major offensive in southern Helmand province, a big test of the U.S. military’s new counterinsurgency strategy. Some 4,000 Marines take part in the effort, the largest Marine offensive since a battle for the Iraqi city of Fallujah five years earlier. The aim of the operation is to restore government services, bolster local police forces and protect civilians from Taliban incursions. By August, the Taliban control or contest 12 of Helmand’s 14 districts, while a small contingent of Marines and Afghan security forces maintain a toehold in the province, heartland of the country’s opium production.

Afghan soldiers carry a wounded comrade into an American helicopter after a Taliban ambush near the village of Tsunek, Kunar province, in March 2010.


Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

A wounded Afghan waits to be loaded into a medevac helicopter after a civilian truck hit a buried mine on June 21, 2010, in Khushi Khona, Herat province.


Chris Hondros/Getty Images

On Nov. 2, 2009, incumbent President Karzai is declared winner of the disputed election. Under international pressure, Mr. Karzai agrees to a runoff vote following the fraud-tainted Aug. 20 election, but his rival,

Abdullah Abdullah,

refuses to participate, saying the vote would be neither free nor fair. The crisis reinforces the Obama administration’s doubts about Mr. Karzai and renews questions about political progress in Kabul.

In 2010, the American military presence in Afghanistan peaks at about 100,000 troops, with other NATO member states providing another 30,000 soldiers. The year 2010 also is the bloodiest year for international forces allied with the government, as 710 military personnel—499 of them American—are killed.

Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard is helped by fellow U.S. Marines after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during a firefight against the Taliban on Aug. 14, 2009, in Helmand province. Cpl. Bernard later dies from his wounds.


Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

A U.S. Marine makes his way toward food supplies dropped by parachutes from a plane outside Forward Operating Base Edi in Helmand province on June 9, 2011.


Anja Niedringhaus/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Bin Laden Killed and Drawdown

On May 1, 2011, U.S. Special Forces kill Osama bin Laden in the northern Pakistani city of Abbottabad. The death of the main target of the world-wide campaign that started 10 years earlier revives debate about the Afghan war. As Mr. Obama prepares to meet his deadline for starting the withdrawal of some American forces, some criticize the drawdown as too precipitous, given the fragility of Afghanistan, while others say it is too slow, given the domestic demands that are being neglected as a result of the $10 billion-a-month war effort.

In June 2011, Mr. Obama says the U.S. has “turned a corner” in the war since his troop surge the previous year, becoming the latest American official to use the metaphor to describe progress in standing up Afghan security forces. But several incidents undermine the purported progress, including an accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. troops in February 2012 and allegations that an American soldier murdered at least 16 Afghan villagers three weeks later.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in an interview in July 2017.


Kiana Hayeri for The Wall Street Journal

On Sept. 21, 2014,

Ashraf Ghani

and Abdullah Abdullah sign a power-sharing agreement brokered by the U.S. to prevent an outbreak of factional fighting following a fraud-marred election on April 5. Under the deal, Mr. Ghani, a former World Bank executive, becomes president, and Mr. Abdullah becomes chief executive. Continued tussling between the two over government appointments cripples the government as the Taliban make gains across the country.

On Dec. 28, 2014, U.S.-led NATO forces formally end their combat operations in Afghanistan, leaving the Afghan army and police in charge of security in a country still plagued by a ferocious insurgency and a rising tide of military and civilian casualties. The U.S. and other NATO member states will continue providing military training, with additional American forces carrying out counterterrorism operations and airstrikes. While security is now formally the responsibility of government forces, U.S. and Afghan officials say that without American support, the armed forces would quickly collapse.

After decades of conflict, many Afghan women are widowed and struggle to survive. Bib Aisha, a mother of five, begged for money after her husband was killed by the Taliban in the 1990s. She now relies on her son for support.


Paula Bronstein for The Wall Street Journal

On Sept. 28, 2015, the Taliban overrun the northern city of Kunduz and succeed in holding it until U.S. and Afghan forces drive them out three days later. The city’s seizure is a stark illustration of the failure of the Obama surge to reverse the momentum of the insurgency. Despite thousands of additional American and other international forces, the Taliban succeed in taking the war to the north of the country from its strongholds in the south and east.

On July 16, 2016, as Mr. Obama enters his final months in office, he says Afghan security forces “are still not as strong as they need” and slows the drawdown in a war he vowed to end on his watch. He says he will leave 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan until the end of his presidency, instead of dropping the troop level to 5,500, as planned. “When we first sent our forces into Afghanistan 14 years ago, few Americans imagined we’d be there—in any capacity—this long,” he says, acknowledging the public’s frustration with the duration of the war.

A traffic policeman restrains a motorist in central Kunduz.


Andrew Quilty for The Wall Street Journal


Trump’s New Strategy, Stalemate and Negotiations

On April 13, 2017, the U.S. drops its most powerful nonnuclear bomb on suspected Islamic State militants at a cave complex in eastern Nangarhar province. The use of the weapon, nicknamed “the mother of all bombs,” casts light on emergence, starting several years earlier, of a local affiliate of the radical jihadist group Islamic State. Though far smaller than its more nationalistic rival, Islamic State-Khorasan Province vies with the Taliban for members, funding and attention, with often deadly results.

On Aug. 21, 2017, Mr. Trump announces a new Afghan war strategy. He rejects nation-building as an aim of U.S. policy and says winning the war is America’s focus. He undertakes his own surge, delegating to U.S. military officials the option of deploying as many as 7,000 more U.S. forces to Afghanistan. He also loosens the rules of engagement for U.S. commanders, including the use of airstrikes to support Afghan ground forces. Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, calls the plan a game-changer that puts government forces and their allies on a winning path, becoming the latest American official to say that the U.S. and its Afghan partners have turned the corner or are about to do so.

Afghan commandos get into an armored vehicle in Shadal Bazaar, about a mile from the entrance to the Mohmand Valley, where the ‘mother of all bombs’ was dropped on April 13, 2017.


Andrew Quilty for The Wall Street Journal

Relatives and friends of Afghan photographer Shah Marai Faizi carry his coffin in Gul Dara, Kabul, on April 30, 2018. He was killed in a bombing in the Afghan capital.


ANDREW QUILTY/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In January 2018, Taliban fighters carry out a series of attacks in the Afghan capital, most notably detonating an ambulance loaded with explosives on a heavily populated street during rush hour, killing at least 103 people. The attacks suggest that while the Taliban are unable to seize and control major population centers, they can sow mayhem almost anywhere.

On July 22, 2018, direct talks between the U.S. and the Taliban resume, in what appears to be a tacit recognition on both sides that a military victory isn’t possible. Four years of secret diplomacy during the Obama administration aimed at reaching a political settlement to end the Afghan war, or at least reduce its violence, had collapsed in 2013. In the latest effort, the insurgency’s political representatives and a team of American officials led by

Alice Wells,

acting head of the State Department’s bureau of South and Central Asian affairs, hold two days of discussions in the Gulf state of Qatar.

Soviet tanks were left near the airport in Bamiyan after Soviet troops withdrew their forces in 1989. One has since been decorated in red and white by an Iranian artist.


Joel van Houdt for The Wall Street Journal

With each side pursuing a “fight-and-talk” strategy, violence escalates throughout the rest of 2018 and into 2019, as both sides increase military pressure to gain leverage at the negotiating table. In 2018 alone, the conflict costs the lives of about 25,000 people—the most since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. In July 2019, the U.N. says in a report that Afghan security forces and their American-led international allies are responsible for more civilian deaths so far in 2019 than the Taliban.

On Sept. 1, following nine rounds of talks, Taliban officials and an American negotiating team led by the veteran Afghan-born diplomat

Zalmay Khalilzad

initial a deal that calls for an incremental withdrawal of American forces, who number about 13,000, down from the peak of about 100,000 forces between 2010 and 2012. In return, the Taliban commit to police the country against al Qaeda, Islamic State and other transnational Islamist militant groups. But Mr. Trump breaks off the Doha negotiations six days later. But in November, during a Thanksgiving Day visit to U.S. troops, he says the talks have resumed.

Afghans in Kabul protest against France and its president, Emmanuel Macron, after he made remarks about Islam, on Oct. 30, 2020.


Joel van Houdt for The Wall Street Journal

A 14-year-old girl who was killed by a suicide bomber is buried on the outskirts of Kabul on Oct. 25, 2020. Her father says she wanted to be a pilot.


Joel van Houdt for The Wall Street Journal

A fighter for the Resistance Front for Justice attends a ceremony for men who died fighting the Taliban, in Wardak province on Oct. 26, 2020.


Joel van Houdt for The Wall Street Journal

January 2021-Present:

Biden’s Move to End the War

President Biden takes office in January, promising to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops but warning that Mr. Trump’s May 1 deadline may be difficult to maintain. The peace process, meanwhile, has stalled as the two sides wait to see what policy the new president will adopt.

In March, the Biden administration expands on the peace deal struck between Mr. Trump and the Taliban by calling for a large peace conference in Istanbul, slated for April, with the involvement of high-level international delegations to fast-track the peace process.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrives for a conference in Moscow on March 18, 2021.


Alexander Zemlianichenko/Press Pool

The Istanbul conference is meant to be modeled in part on the 2001 Bonn conference, which intended to recreate the Afghan state after the U.S.-led invasion and Mr. Karzai was installed as president. U.S. officials hope the conference will accelerate a cease-fire and power-sharing agreement between the government and the insurgents.

Instead, when Mr. Biden on April 14 announces he plans to pull all American forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 at the latest, the Taliban respond by saying they will boycott the Istanbul conference, dealing a serious blow to the ailing peace process.

The consequence of a U.S. withdrawal, many Afghans fear, is that the Taliban will win political influence through negotiations with a government that has lost its main leverage, and ramp up violence to gain more control militarily. As a result, armed strongmen around the country, who are already mobilizing, may decide to fend for themselves, and the country may fracture once again in a repeat of a decades-old bloody history.

A tattered Afghan flag flies at the top of Wazir Akbar Khan hill while dusk falls over Kabul on Oct. 21, 2020.


Joel van Houdt for The Wall Street Journal

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