On October 7, 2001, a U.S.-led coalition begins attacks on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan with an intense bombing campaign by American and British forces. Logistical support was provided by other nations including France, Germany, Australia and Canada and, later, troops were provided by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance rebels. The invasion of Afghanistan was the opening salvo in the United States “war on terror” and a response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The conflict in Afghanistan would span two decades and become the longest war in U.S. history.
Dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom” in U.S. military parlance, the invasion of Afghanistan was intended to target terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization, which was based in the country, as well as the extreme fundamentalist Taliban government that had ruled most of the country since 1996 and supported and protected al-Qaeda.
The Taliban, which had imposed its extremist version of Islam on the entire country, also perpetrated countless human rights abuses against its people, especially women, girls and ethnic Hazaras. During their rule, large numbers of Afghans lived in utter poverty, and as many as 4 million Afghans are thought to have suffered from starvation.
In the weeks prior to the invasion, both the United States and the U.N. Security Council had demanded that the Taliban turn over Osama bin Laden for prosecution. After deeming the Taliban’s counteroffers unsatisfactory—among them to try bin Laden in an Islamic court—the invasion began with an aerial bombardment of Taliban and al-Qaeda installations in Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Konduz and Mazar-e-Sharif. Other coalition planes flew in airdrops of humanitarian supplies for Afghan civilians. The Taliban called the actions “an attack on Islam.”
After the air campaign softened Taliban defenses, the coalition began a ground invasion, with Northern Alliance forces providing most of the troops and the United States and other nations giving air and ground support. On November 12, a little over a month after the military action began, Taliban officials and their forces retreated from the capital of Kabul. By early December, Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold, had fallen and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar went into hiding rather than surrender.
Al-Qaeda fighters continued to hide out in Afghanistan’s mountainous Tora Bora region, where they were engaged by anti-Taliban Afghan forces, backed by U.S. Special Forces troops. Al-Qaeda soon initiated a truce, which is now believed to have been a ploy to allow Osama bin Laden and other key al-Qaeda members time to escape into neighboring Pakistan. By mid-December, the bunker and cave complex used by al-Qaeda at Tora Bora had been captured, but there was no sign of bin Laden. Following a 10-year manhunt, bin Laden was finally found and killed in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011.
After Tora Bora, a grand council of Afghan tribal leaders and former exiles was convened under the leadership of Hamid Karzai, who first served as interim leader before becoming the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan on December 7, 2004. Even as Afghanistan began to take the first steps toward democracy, however, with more than 10,000 U.S. troops in country, al-Qaeda and Taliban forces began to regroup in the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the next decade-plus, they continued to engage U.S. and Afghan troops in guerilla-style warfare and were also responsible for the deaths of elected government officials and aid workers and the kidnapping of foreigners. Despite a peace agreement signed between the Taliban and U.S. forces in February of 2020, hostilities on both sides continued.
In April of 2021, President Biden—who, like his previous two predecessors, pledged to end the war in Afghanistan—set the deadline of September 11, 2021 as the date of full U.S. withdrawal, with the final drawdown effort to begin in May. By early August of that year, the Taliban began retaking the country. On August 15, 2021, the capital of Kabul fell to Taliban forces and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled to the UAE. Following the collapse of the Afghan government and Taliban victory, on August 31, 2021, President Biden declared the war in Afghanistan officially over.
During the 20-year conflict, more than 3,500 allied soldiers were killed, with 20,000-plus Americans injured. Approximately 69,000 Afghan security forces were killed, along with roughly 51,000 civilians and 51,000 militants. According to the United Nations, some 5 million Afghans have been displaced by the war since 2012, making Afghanistan the world's third-largest displaced population.