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Photos from America’s longest war

Rod Nordland and

Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the attention of the US military turned to Afghanistan, where the leaders of Al Qaeda were based. Many knew that an invasion was coming.

What no one knew was that Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion aimed at routing Al Qaeda and its hosts, the Taliban, would turn into a war that is now in its 20th year – the most long from the United States.

He upset four US presidencies and outlawed 14 US military commanders. It has also opened a window, for a large part of the world, on a country where modernity still clashes with ancient customs and religious edicts.

Here are, in chronological order, images showing the long war arc, seen through the eyes of New York Times photographers.


Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001 with an American bombing campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. On the ground, US special operations forces teams joined forces with Afghan militias opposing the Taliban, primarily the Northern Alliance, to oust the Taliban from power. The capital, Kabul, fell in mid-November, along with the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

In December, Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, fled to Pakistan through the mountains around Tora Bora. In the same month, an interim Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai was installed.

A United Nations Security Council resolution created the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, a US-led military coalition.


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan in May 2003. Even with a major reconstruction effort underway there and around 8,000 US troops in place, the President’s administration George W. Bush began to transfer combat resources to the Iraq war.

In 2004, an Afghan assembly drafted a constitution. Zalmay Khalilzad, then US Ambassador, said it contained “the foundation of democratic institutions.”

[Read a Times historical photo essay on past Afghan wars, The Empire Stopper.]

The Taliban-led insurgency intensified in 2006, multiplying ambushes and suicide attacks. Despite the training and equipment provided by the United States and ISAF, Afghan security forces were unable to contain the Taliban resurgence, aided by militants across the border in Pakistan. The United States has sent more of its troops to war.

In 2007, approximately 25,000 US troops were in Afghanistan.


In February 2009, the new American president, Barack Obama, declared a new commitment to war and deployed 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, in addition to the 36,000 already present.

In December, Obama announced a “push” to build and train an Afghan security force strong enough to take responsibility for combating the insurgency. His plan called for sending an additional 30,000 US troops, bringing the total number to nearly 100,000 by mid-2010.


In May 2011, a US Navy SEAL team killed Osama Bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he had lived for years. In June, Obama announced that he would withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by mid-2012.

In 2012, Afghan President Hamid Karzai began to blame the United States and coalition troops for the increase in civilian casualties, as his relationship with the American leadership deteriorated.

Afghans assumed most security responsibilities in 2013, with US-led coalition forces shifting to training and counterterrorism operations.


On December 31, 2014, the combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended, but the US military presence in the country did not. Mr. Obama announced a timetable for the withdrawal of most troops by the end of 2016.

After a fraudulent 2014 election, Ashraf Ghani became president, but he signed a power-sharing deal with his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.

On the battlefield, Afghan security forces increasingly fought the Taliban, taking heavy casualties and losing territory.

In August 2017, President Trump said that if his first instinct had been to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, he would continue to fight the war. He stressed that withdrawal decisions would be based on combat conditions and not on predetermined deadlines.


At the end of 2018, US and Taliban negotiators began peace talks. Discussions continued until 2020, in Doha, Qatar. (The Afghan government has been excluded from the talks – the Taliban has refused to meet with its officials.)

On February 29, 2020, the United States signed a peace accord with the Taliban, opening the door to a gradual and permanent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the start of direct talks between the Afghan government and the insurgency to determine the future of the country.

As of February 2020, around 12,000 US troops were still in the country.

The United States spent approximately $ 2 trillion on the war effort. About 2,400 American soldiers and nearly 700 soldiers from other coalition nations died. Over 38,000 civilians have been killed and, among Afghan security forces, around 60,000 are believed to have died since the start of the war.

Produced by Craig Allen, David Furst, Mikko Takkunen and Gaia Tripoli.

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