Afghanistan war overview
U.S. and coalition forces have taken the fight to Taliban and al-Qaida elements — to varying degrees — for most of this decade.
The war began on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City, at the Pentagon and in a field in western Pennsylvania. On Oct. 7, it moved to Afghanistan.
The United States and Great Britain launched a withering bombing campaign on military sites in Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar, strongholds of the Taliban movement that had given safe harbor to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist organization.
Within days, most Taliban training sites were severely damaged. In an omen of the years of fighting to come, however, thousands of fighters from the Pashtun ethnic group poured into the country from neighboring Pakistan, reinforcing the Taliban against the U.S.-led forces.
President George Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had decided to minimize the use of conventional Army forces. Therefore, the first American forces in Afghanistan came from the CIA’s Special Activities Branch, with Army Special Forces joining them soon thereafter.
The plan was for the CIA and Special Forces to direct the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in overthrowing the Taliban and al-Qaida. The goal was to capture bin Laden and other high-ranking al-Qaida members, destroy al-Qaida, and then remove and replace the Taliban with a friendly government.
Taking the fight to the Taliban
The ground fighting began on Nov. 9 in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Bearded U.S. Special Forces soldiers on horseback, assisted by close-air support, directed the Northern Alliance into the city, where the Taliban fled after a bloody 90-minute fight. Moving south, the Americans and their Northern Alliance troops reached Kabul on Nov. 13, only to find that the Taliban had fled the city the previous night.
The fall of Kabul signaled the collapse of the Taliban. Within 24 hours, all of the Afghan provinces along the Iranian border had fallen. Local Pashtun commanders and warlords had taken over throughout northeastern Afghanistan, including the key city of Jalalabad.
Taliban holdouts in the north fell back to the northern city of Kondoz to make a stand. By Nov. 16, Kondoz, the Taliban’s last stronghold in northern Afghanistan, was besieged by the Northern Alliance.
Taliban forces had been split into three groups; the one in Kondoz; another in their heartland around Kandahar; and the third, including Osama bin Laden, which was believed to be holed up in a cave complex in the Tora Bora Mountains, 18 miles southwest of Jalalabad.
Then the fighting intensified. American and British bombers pounded Kondoz for nine days.
The bombing also continued in the Tora Bora Mountains. CIA and Special Forces operatives were already at work, enlisting and paying local warlords to join the fight and planning an attack on the 2,000 al-Qaida and Taliban troops defending the Tora Bora complex.
At the same time, American conventional troops finally had landed. A Marine Expeditionary Unit under the command of Lt. Gen. James Mattis was airlifted from the Gulf of Oman and established Camp Rhino in the desert south of Kandahar on Nov. 25. This was the first strategic American foothold in Afghanistan. The first significant combat involving American forces occurred the next day when 15 armored Taliban vehicles approached Camp Rhino; Marine helicopter gunships destroyed most of them.
Meanwhile, air strikes continued to pound Taliban positions inside Kandahar, where Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was holed up. He remained defiant; despite controlling only four of the 30 Afghan provinces, he called on his forces to fight to the death.
Kandahar was the last remaining Taliban stronghold, but it was besieged; nearly 3,000 tribal fighters led by Hamid Karzai blockaded the east while cutting off Kandahar’s supply routes from the north as the Marines took positions to the south and west.
By Dec. 6, Omar signaled that he was ready to surrender Kandahar to tribal forces, but President Bush rejected his offer, so on Dec. 7, Omar slipped out of Kandahar. Karzai’s forces seized the city while the Marines took control of Kandahar Airport and patrolled the region from Camp Rhino.
Battle of Tora Bora
Finally the U.S. focus shifted to Tora Bora. Local tribal militias, paid and organized by Special Forces and CIA, began to mass for an attack as heavy bombing continued of suspected al-Qaida positions.
On Dec. 2, a group of 20 Special Forces members was inserted by helicopter to support the operation, while al-Qaida fighters moved to higher fortified positions and dug in for the battle. Subjected to round-the-clock air strikes by the U.S., the al-Qaida forces agreed to a truce, but they then outbid the local forces the U.S. already had paid and slipped, bin Laden included, into Pakistan.
2002: Operation Anaconda
Following a “loya jirga,” or grand council, an interim Afghan government was established in Kabul under Karzai. But the Taliban and al-Qaida had not given up. Al-Qaida forces began regrouping in the Shahi-Kot Mountains of Paktia province throughout January and February 2002.
U.S. intelligence sources picked up this buildup and prepared a massive push to counter it. On March 2, 2002, U.S. and Afghan forces launched an offensive, despite the Taliban being entrenched at altitudes of more than 10,000 feet.
Using guerilla tactics, the Taliban opened fire on the U.S. and Afghan forces, then retreated back into their caves, By March 6, eight Americans and seven Afghan soldiers were killed, and reportedly 400 opposing forces had been killed in the fighting. However, several hundred guerrillas escaped to the Waziristan tribal areas across the border in Pakistan.
During Operation Anaconda and other missions in 2002 and 2003, special forces from several western nations also were involved in operations. These included the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, the Canadian Joint Task Force 2, the German KSK, the New Zealand Special Air Service and the Norwegian Marinejegerkommandoen.
2003-2007: Renewed Taliban insurgency
With President Bush withdrawing American forces in order to attack Iraq, the remnants of the Taliban regained their confidence and started to launch the insurgency that Mullah Omar had promised during his last days in power. As months passed, the attacks increased in frequency south of Kandahar. Dozens of Afghan government soldiers, non-governmental organization and humanitarian workers and several U.S. soldiers died in the raids, ambushes and rocket attacks.
More European and Canadian troops were sent south to replace the Americans. The British manned southern Afghanistan, with troops and helicopters from Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.
Southern Afghanistan faced the deadliest spate of violence in the country since 2001 as NATO troops battled resurgent militants. NATO forces fought intensely throughout the second half of 2006, achieving tactical victories over the Taliban, but did not have the troop strength to occupy the areas they had just liberated.
2008-2009: Reassessment and renewed commitment
In the first months of 2008, the number of American troops increased by more than 80 percent to 48,250 in June. Yet on June 13, Taliban fighters demonstrated their strength by attacking the Kandahar jail. The well-planned operation freed 1,200 prisoners, 400 of whom were Taliban. On July 13, a coordinated Taliban attack was launched on a base in Wanat, almost wiping out an Army unit. On Aug. 19, French troops suffered their worst losses when a patrol was ambushed in Kapisa province.
In March 2009, President Barack Obama announced the deployment of almost 21,000 more troops, including 10,000 Marines who deployed virtually immediately. In June, under Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, they launched Operation Khanjar, the biggest American operation since 2001. The previous American commander, Gen. David McKiernan, was relieved and replaced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose new strategy involved protecting the population.
Nicholson agreed with that strategy. “We’re going to be with the people,” he said. “We’re not going to drive to work, we’re going to walk to work.”
Complicating the situation was the August national election in which President Karzai was accused of stealing enough votes to avoid a run-off election, as well as McChrystal’s August report that “the Taliban had gained the upper hand and NATO is not winning.” He said he needed 40,000 more troops to avoid defeat.
In September, the International Council on Security and Development released a map showing that the Taliban had a “permanent presence” in 80 percent of the country.
Andrew Lubin is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania who has embedded with the Marine Corps in Iraq; Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Beirut, Lebanon. He is the author of “Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq.”