17 Essential Documentaries on the War in Afghanistan — and Its Consequences
Abandoned uniforms outside the Kabul airport, in an image captured during the filming of the October 2021 FRONTLINE documentary "Taliban Takeover." (Clover Films/FRONTLINE)
Evolving threats from Al Qaeda and ISIS. A clampdown on women’s rights. Ethnic minorities facing harsh consequences: This is Afghanistan today, less than two months after the Taliban swept back into power and the last U.S. troops departed from Kabul airport.
That’s the picture painted by the upcoming documentary Taliban Takeover, continuing FRONTLINE’s 20 years of covering the conflict.
“Despite the Taliban’s claims that it has changed, what I’ve seen in the early days of the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan looks a lot like the harsh and brutal Taliban of the 1990s,” says the documentary’s Peabody Award-winning correspondent, Najibullah Quraishi, who was born and raised in Afghanistan and has covered the war there for two decades.
The documentary is the latest in a number of FRONTLINE films chronicling what became America’s longest war — one that, for years, U.S. military leaders had privately conceded was not winnable, The Washington Post reported in 2019.
The conflict began under President George W. Bush in October 2001, in a bid to destroy Al Qaeda — the terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban, which had rejected U.S. demands to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In 2020, with a reported death toll of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and more than 2,000 U.S. troops, the Trump administration negotiated a deal with the resurgent Taliban that U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. President Biden said in April 2021 that the “final withdrawal” would begin May 1, and the U.S. would pull out fully “before we mark the 20th anniversary of that heinous attack on September 11th.”
Following a successful offensive across the country, the Taliban entered Afghanistan’s capital and seized power two weeks before U.S. troops were set be out of the country by Biden’s revised date of August 31, 2021.
Stream Taliban Takeover and these 16 previous documentaries to explore how the war in Afghanistan began, how it evolved, what it has meant for ordinary Afghan citizens, and the still-unfolding consequences of both the war and the withdrawal.
Taliban Takeover (2021)
With producer Jamie Doran, Najibullah Quraishi reveals just how rapidly the Taliban’s return to power has transformed daily life in Afghanistan, especially for women and ethnic minorities, and how threats from Al Qaeda and ISIS are intensifying.
America After 9/11 (2021)
In examining how the U.S. response to Sept. 11 changed the country and the world, Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Philip Bennett, Jim Gilmore and Gabrielle Schonder traced the roots of the U.S. military’s failure in Afghanistan back to decisions made in the aftermath of the worst terror attacks on American soil.
Leaving Afghanistan (2021)
Najibullah Quraishi investigated the consequences of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the Taliban’s ascent and fears of escalating sectarian violence, in this film with Jamie Doran.
Taliban Country (2020)
Najibullah Quraishi gave an on-the-ground look at the Taliban’s resurgence and the threat posed by ISIS in Afghanistan, and he interviewed the Taliban’s chief negotiator with the U.S. in this film with Jamie Doran.
ISIS in Afghanistan (2015)
Najibullah Quraishi reported on how ISIS gained a foothold in Afghanistan — and how the terror group focused its efforts on training a new generation of fighters — in this film with Jamie Doran.
Opium Brides (2012)
Najibullah Quraishi and Jamie Doran investigated the Afghan government’s counternarcotics effort, which placed some Afghan opium farmers who had borrowed money from drug gangs in a horrifying situation: repay their debts or give their daughters to drug traffickers.
The Secret War (2012)
Martin Smith and Stephen Grey went inside a deep front in America’s war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Pakistan. They uncovered new details about border-crossing and CIA-funded Afghan militias, and they investigated covert support for elements of the Taliban by Pakistani military and intelligence.
Following the death of Osama bin Laden, Dan Edge and Stephen Grey examined the Obama administration’s campaign of targeted killings of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Fighting for bin Laden (2011)
Najibullah Quraishi investigated rumors that Al Qaeda was once again becoming a significant presence in Afghanistan, in this film produced with Jamie Doran and Martin Smith.
Against the backdrop of an Afghanistan ravaged by war and poverty, Najibullah Quraishi and Jamie Doran revealed the resurgence of an illegal practice known as “bacha bazi,” in which young boys are sold by their families to wealthy merchants and warlords, are taught to dance and entertain, and are sexually exploited.
Behind Taliban Lines (2010)
Najibullah Quraishi traveled inside a part of the country that had quietly reverted back to Taliban control and tracked members of an insurgent cell working with members of Al Qaeda on a mission to sabotage a major U.S./NATO supply route. Produced with Jamie Doran.
Obama’s War (2009)
After President Barack Obama took office, Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria examined the status of the U.S.’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan — finding that the fight promised to be longer and more costly than most Americans understood.
The War Briefing (2008)
Shortly before the 2008 presidential election — and shortly after Afghanistan had become a deadlier battlefield than Iraq — Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria took a hard look at what the next president would face in the Middle East.
Bush’s War (2008)
From Michael Kirk and his team, an in-depth, four-and-a-half hour analysis of the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terror” following 9/11 — from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond.
Return of the Taliban (2006)
Martin Smith revealed how, nearly seven years after the Taliban was toppled, both it and Al Qaeda continued to use Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border as a launching pad for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The Dark Side (2006)
As part of this investigation of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s push for war in Iraq and his battle with the Bush administration’s intelligence community in the wake of 9/11, Michael Kirk and his team looked at how power struggles and disagreements within the administration shaped the war in Afghanistan — including Osama bin Laden’s 2001 escape from the mountains of Tora Bora.
In Search of Al Qaeda (2002)
What happened to the hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters who survived U.S. airstrikes in the mountains of Afghanistan? In this 2002 documentary from Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith, FRONTLINE followed the fighters’ trail — from the borderlands of Pakistan, across the Gulf of Oman, to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
FRONTLINE first began reporting on Osama bin Laden in 1999, after he masterminded the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. A number of our early films on bin Laden and the post-9/11 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — including Hunting bin Laden and Campaign Against Terror — are no longer available for streaming online, but you can still explore interviews and transcripts from the documentaries.