18 Essential Documentaries on Afghanistan and the Taliban

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A still image from the August 2022 FRONTLINE documentary "Afghanistan Undercover."

A still image from the August 2022 FRONTLINE documentary "Afghanistan Undercover."

August 15, 2022

On Aug. 15, 2021, two weeks before U.S. troops were set to finish their withdrawal from Afghanistan following nearly two decades of war, the Taliban swept into power in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and seized control of the country as the Western-backed government collapsed.

One year later, how has the Taliban’s takeover impacted life in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan Undercover, a new FRONTLINE documentary filmed on the ground in the country throughout the past year, offers some grim answers focused on the Taliban’s crackdown on Afghan women and girls.

“They know that the international community is looking at their treatment of women and kind of using it as a litmus test,” the documentary’s correspondent, Ramita Navai, said of the Taliban in a recent interview on The FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast. “They know that. So these are stories … they want to keep hidden.”

As it took power, the hardline group promised to respect women’s rights. But in Afghanistan Undercover, which is now available to stream online, Navai talked to women who said they were jailed by the Taliban without trial and held in secret; to families of girls reportedly abducted from their homes and forcibly married; and to women living in hiding, in fear for their lives, with those who spoke out risking imprisonment.

Navai’s findings build on those in the October 2021 FRONTLINE documentary Taliban Takeover. That film, from correspondent Najibullah Quraishi, who was born and raised in Afghanistan, looked at the early weeks after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. Quraishi found evolving threats from Al Qaeda and ISIS, a clampdown on women’s rights and ethnic minorities facing harsh consequences.

These films are the latest of numerous FRONTLINE documentaries covering Afghanistan over more than 20 years. Many chronicled what became America’s longest war — and 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 to oust its ruling ally, the Taliban, which had rejected U.S. demands to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The Taliban regime was driven from power by the U.S.-led coalition before the end of the year.

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 Sept. 11th.”

Following a successful offensive across the country, the Taliban seized power in Kabul two weeks before U.S. troops were set to be out of the country by Biden’s revised date of Aug. 31, 2021. Nearly one year later, on Aug. 1, 2022, Biden announced that a U.S. strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, had killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been a close associate of bin Laden’s and a co-planner of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Stream Afghanistan Undercover, Taliban Takeover and 16 other FRONTLINE documentaries that explored life in Afghanistan for ordinary Afghan citizens; the Taliban’s fall and then its resurgence; and how the U.S.-led war began, evolved and ended.


Afghanistan Undercover (2022)

Ramita Navai and director Karim Shah revealed the harsh realities of life for Afghan women and girls under the Taliban’s rule. Explore related coverage in a story looking at the status of healthcare for women and a podcast interview with Navai.


Taliban Takeover (2021)

With producer Jamie Doran, Najibullah Quraishi revealed just how rapidly the Taliban’s return to power transformed daily life in Afghanistan, especially for women and ethnic minorities, and how threats from Al Qaeda and ISIS were 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 documentary 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 documentary 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 documentary 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.


Kill/Capture (2011)

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 documentary produced with Jamie Doran and Martin Smith.


The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan (2010)

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 were sold by their families to wealthy merchants and warlords, were taught to dance and entertain, and were 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)

Part 1:

Part 2:

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.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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