As the United States prepares to end its longest war, here is a timeline of the US’s war in Afghanistan
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September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four commercial aircraft and crashed them into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. The fourth airliner crash-landed in a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed. Soon after, Osama bin Laden, the head of the Islamist terror group, was identified as the man behind the attack.
September 18, 2001: Taliban, the regional Islamic political and military force running Afghanistan, was protecting Bin Laden and refused to hand him over to the United States. In response, then US President George W Bush signed into law the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF). As per this law, the country could use force against the nations, organisations or persons behind the 9/11 attack — namely the Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Over the years, the AUMF was used as the legal rationale for the US’ decision to invade Afghanistan, and use force against the Al-Qaeda and its associates, both on and off the battlefield.
October 7, 2001: American and British forces jointly launch attacks on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. This was the opening salvo in the US’ proposed “war on terror”. The mission, dubbed ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, began with a series of air strikes which did manage to soften Taliban defences. Following this, a number of US special forces, Northern Alliance, and ethnic Pashtun anti-Taliban forces provided support on ground.
November, 2001: Taliban forces began to crumble and retreat from several of their strongholds across the country, including Kabul. Later that month, the UNSC called for the formation of a transitional administration and invited member states to send across peacekeeping forces for maintaining stability. Several Al-Qaeda fighters remained in hiding in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, where they constantly sparred with anti-Taliban Afghan forces, which were backed by the US.
December, 2001: The All-Qaeda initiated a truce, which many now believe was merely a coverup to help Bin Laden and several other al-Qaeda leaders escape into Pakistan. When the Tora Bora cave complex, formerly inhabited by the Al-Qaeda was captured, there was no sign of Bin Laden.
In early December, the UN invited a number of major Afghan factions to a conference in Germany, where the Bonn Agreement was signed. The agreement provided for an international peacekeeping force to maintain security and peace in Kabul.
On December 9, the Taliban surrendered Kandahar and Taliban leader Mullah Omar fled the city. This is widely considered to have been the end of the Taliban regime in the country. But several Al-Qaeda leaders were still hiding in the mountains. By December 21, an interim Afghan government was sworn in.
March 2, 2002: US-led coalition forces faced off with around 800 Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Shar-i Kot Valley near the Pakistan border in one of the most brutal confrontations in the history of the US-Afghanistan war. This was also around the time the US began diverting some of its military and intelligence resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, which the country was seeing as a growing threat in its “war on terror”.
April, 2002: In a speech delivered at the Virginia Military Institute, President Bush announced a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan. However, development efforts in the country did not receive adequate funding as the US had already turned its attention towards the situation in Iraq.
May 1, 2003: The then-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to “major combat” in Afghanistan. On the same day, President Bush made a similar announcement about combat operations in Iraq. At the time, there were around 8,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
October 9, 2004: The country’s first democratic elections since the fall of the Taliban was held and around 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s voting population cast their ballot for Hamid Karzai, who was serving as an interim leader before the polls. Parliamentary elections were conducted soon after, in which several women candidates were elected to seats specially reserved for them to ensure gender diversity.
October 29, 2004: Osama Bin Laden released a recorded message days after the presidential election, in which he mocked the Bush administration and claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.
2005: The year 2005 was marked by the gradual resurgence of the Taliban with violence increasing across the country. But this time they changed their tactics — while they had once engaged in open combat with the US and NATO forces, they were now resorting to suicide bombings and using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), resulting in many casualties.
The return of Taliban also coincided with an increasing anti-American and Anti-Western sentiment among Afghan people, who were grappling with the sudden rise in violence, coupled with widespread corruption within their government and reports of prisoner abuse at US detention facilities.
2006: Cracks began to appear within the NATO, as some member states sparred on troop commitments to Afghanistan. At the Riga conference that year, the alliance’s General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that NATO forces should be able to gradually hand over responsibility to Afghanistan’s security forces in 2008. He urged countries to commit more troops with less national restrictions in the meantime.
2007: Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, one of the Taliban’s top leaders, was captured in Pakistan. Months later, the Taliban’s top military commander Mullah Dadullah was killed by US forces.
2009: Then-US President Barack Obama announced that he was increasing military presence in Afghanistan to 68,000 troops, making good on one of his key campaign promises of shifting military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan.
During a two-day NATO conference in April, member states vowed to send an extra 5,000 troops to help train Afghan security forces and provide security during the presidential elections in August.
In November, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as President for another term following an election marred by fraud allegations.
2010: The number of American war deaths had crossed the 1,000 mark by early 2010. It was around this time, General Stanley McChrystal, who was then the commander of NATO-US forces in Afghanistan, was relieved of his post following the release of a controversial article in the Rolling Stone, in which he and members of his staff criticised several top Obama administration officials. He was replaced by General David Petraeus, head of the military’s Central Command.
In November, NATO members signed a declaration stating that they would hand over responsibility for maintaining peace and security in Afghanistan to Afghan’s own security forces by the end of 2014.
2011: On May 1, 2011, Bin Laden was killed by US forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was hiding with some of his family members. He was buried in the Northern Arabian Sea the same day.
By June, Obama announced his plans to withdraw 30,000 troops by 2012. At the time, Obama was facing overwhelming pressure from the American public, who were largely against the war in Afghanistan, as per polls.
In September, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, a central figure in reconciliation negotiations, was assassinated in a suicide bombing incident.
2012: Tensions began to rise between the US and Afghan government after a video showing Marines urinating on dead Afghans surfaced on social media. Within weeks, protests broke out after reports suggested that US soldiers had burnt copies of the Quran at a military base.
In March, a US soldier allegedly broke into several homes near Panjwai, shooting dead 17 Afghan villagers, a majority of whom were children and women. Days later, the Taliban suspended talks with the US and the Afghan government.
2013: NATO handed over control of security to Afghan forces. Instead, the coalition focussed on military training and counter-terrorism in the region. Meanwhile, the Taliban and US officials resumed talks in Doha, Qatar.
2014: President Obama unveiled his plan for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
In September, Ashraf Ghani was elected president after a lengthy delay following the presidential election. He signed the Bilateral Security Agreement, which Karzai had previously refused to sign towards the end of his presidency, which permitted approximately 13,000 foreign troops to remain in the country.
On December 28, the US and NATO formally ended their combat mission in Afghanistan.
2017: The US dropped a massive GBU-43 bomb, dubbed the “mother of all bombs”, in eastern Afghanistan, targeting a series of caves occupied by Islamic State militants. This was the first time the country used a bomb of this size in conflict. The bomb hit a “tunnel complex” in the Achin district of the Nangarhar province, close to Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.
In August, former President Donald Trump outlined a new strategy for resolving the conflict in Afghanistan in a televised speech to troops at Fort Myer military base in Virginia. “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” Trump said. “But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
He invited India to play a greater role in restoring peace in Afghanistan, while condemning Pakistan for harbouring Taliban forces.
2019: The US ramps up peace negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. Taliban officials vowed to block International terrorist groups from Afghanistan in exchange for the US withdrawing its troops.
In September, Trump abruptly called off peace talks merely a week after the US’ Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad announced he had brokered an agreement “in principle” with Taliban leaders. Trump claimed his decision was sparked by the recent killing of a US soldier by Taliban fighters.
2020: The US and Taliban signed an agreement, paving the way for foreign troops to be significantly withdrawn from Afghanistan. But without a ceasefire, Taliban fighters launched a series of attacks on Afghan security forces in the days that followed. In response, the US launched an airstrike against the Taliban forces stationed in the Helmand province.
In November, US Defence Secretary Christopher C Miller announced plans to halve troops to 2,500 by January. Following the US-Taliban agreement, thousands of troops had already been withdrawn.
2021: President Joe Biden announced that the US will not meet the May 1 deadline for withdrawing troops laid down in the US-Taliban agreement. Instead, troops will retreat completely by September 11, 2021, he said.
Explained: After US exit from Afghanistan
The US has taken major hits during its long-running war in Afghanistan.
The announcement by President Joe Biden that the US will withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, has sent tremors through the region’s fault-lines.
Unlike the Trump Administration, which made its troop withdrawal by May 1 conditional — on Taliban taking steps to prevent al-Qaeda or any other group from sheltering in Afghanistan, and agreeing to a dialogue on power sharing with the Afghan government — the Biden plan has no strings attached. There are about 2,500-3,500 US troops in Afghanistan at present, plus a NATO force of under 8,000. A co-ordinated withdrawal is expected to begin soon.
The impact of this announcement on various actors within Afghanistan and outside is bound to be far-reaching. It can be said with certainty that no country in the region will remain untouched.
Afghanistan: advantage Taliban
Biden’s announcement has removed all incentives for the Taliban to agree for a dialogue with the Afghan government. In a statement on Thursday, the Taliban indicated as much: “The Islamic Emirate will under no circumstance ever relent on complete independence and establishment of a pure Islamic system, and remain committed to a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem following the complete and certain end of occupation.
The proposal by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in March is now almost certainly dead in the water. It included a 90-day ceasefire; talks under the auspices of the UN for a consensus plan for Afghanistan among the US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India; and a meeting in Turkey between the Taliban and Afghan government towards an “inclusive” interim government, an agreement on the foundational principles of the future political order and for a permanent ceasefire.
Turkey has scheduled the talks for April 24, and the Biden Administration has said it remains committed to finding a political solution. But the Taliban are now in a different zone.
The Taliban declared in the statement that the “American officials have understood the Afghan situation” but as the withdrawal had been put off “by several months” to September, rather than stick to the Doha Agreement (signed between the Trump Administration’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban last March) date of May 1, America had violated the agreement. This had “opened the way” for the Taliban to take “counter-measures”, and the American side “will be held responsible for all future consequences, and not the Islamic Emirate”.
According to the Long War Journal (a project of the US-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies), of Afghanistan’s 325 districts, the Taliban are in control of 76 or 19%, and government forces 127 or 32%. The remaining are contested. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, the Taliban are stronger now than at any point since 2001, when US forces invaded Afghanistan.
After the full withdrawal of troops, Taliban are likely to see the war, which they believe they have already won, to its completion. The recently published US Threat Assessment Report, an annual US intelligence briefing, said prospects for a peace deal are dim, the Taliban are confident of victory in the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold them at bay.
President Ashraf Ghani tweeted the stoic message that his government “respects the US decision and will work with our US partners to ensure a smooth transition”. But he and others who have invested in a democratic Afghanistan know the country is close to losing all the gains of the last 15 years. There is deep apprehension of a return to the 1990s, although there is also a view that the Taliban too have changed over 25 years, and would not want to alienate the international community as they did when they ruled Afghanistan during 1996-01.
Earlier, Ghani had proposed that if the Taliban were ready to talk, he would give up what remained of his presidential term, and hold a re-election in which the Taliban were free to participate. The Taliban have always rejected elections as un-Islamic, and the government of Afghanistan as a “puppet” of the US. Ghani’s proposal gained no traction.
Pakistan: gains, concerns
This is a moment of both vindication and concern in Islamabad. The Taliban are a creation of the Pakistani security establishment. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, they removed themselves to safe havens in Pakistan territory, and the Taliban High Council operated from Quetta in Balochistan.
It was Pakistan that persuaded the Taliban to do a deal with the Trump Administration. For the Pakistani Army, which has always seen Afghanistan in terms of “strategic depth” in its forever hostility with India, a Taliban capture of Afghanistan would finally bring a friendly force in power in Kabul after 20 years. India, which has had excellent relations with the Karzai and Ghani governments, would be cut to size.
But a US withdrawal also means Pakistan will need to shoulder the entire burden of the chaos that experts predict. Civil war is not ruled out and with it, the flow of refugees into Pakistan once again, even as the country struggles with refugees from the first Afghan war.
All this at a time when the economy is flailing, and Pakistan stays afloat on an IMF loan with strict conditionalities. Plus, the Taliban are not a monolith, and have recently shown streaks of independence from Pakistan. It has to guard against instability in Afghanistan from spilling over the border. Pakistan’s eastern front with India is quiet at the moment, so that is one headache less, but it would remain a concern for the Pakistan Army.
India: time to be wary
New Delhi, which was hoping to be part of the Blinken initiative, would be nervous about the US withdrawal. India was on the outer edges of the Trump drive to exit Afghanistan that culminated in the Doha Accord, and was a reluctant supporter of the “intra-Afghan talks” between the Taliban and Afghan government. When the Biden Administration came in, India was hopeful of a US reset.
The Blinken proposal gave India a role, by recognising it as a regional stakeholder, but this proposal seems to have no future. The Haqqani group, fostered by the ISI, would have a large role in any Taliban regime. Another concern would be India-focused militants such as Laskhar- e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohamed, which the Indian security establishment already believes to have relocated in large numbers to Afghanistan.
Russia, China & Iran
China would have much to lose from instability in Afghanistan as this could have an impact on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. A Taliban regime in Afghanistan might end up stirring unrest in the Xinjiang Autonomous region, home to the Uighur minority. Conversely, as an ally of Pakistan, it could see a bigger role for itself in Afghanistan.
The US exit is for Russia a full circle after its own defeat at the hands of US-backed Mujahideen and exit from Afghanistan three decades ago. In recent years, Russia has taken on the role of peacemaker in Afghanistan. But both the Taliban and the Afghan government have been wary of its efforts. After a conference in March of Russia, US, China and Pakistan, along with Taliban and Afghan delegates, a joint statement by the four principals said they did not support the establishment of an Islamic Emirate, leaving the Taliban angry. Russia’s growing links with Pakistan could translate into a post-US role for Moscow in Afghanistan.
As a country that shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran perceives active security threats from both. And a Taliban regime in Kabul would only increase this threat perception. But Iran, with links to the Hazaras in Afghanistan, has of late played all sides. Despite the mutual hostility and the theological divide between the two, Iran opened channels to the Taliban a few years ago, and recently, even hosted a Taliban delegation at Tehran.