As the Taliban Sweeps Into Power in Afghanistan, a Look Back at How the U.S.-led War Began.

An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2014.

An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2014. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

August 16, 2021

On August 6, the Taliban seized its first provincial capital in Afghanistan after spending 20 years out of power. Just nine days later, after a stunning advance through several other cities, the Taliban’s forces entered the country’s capital — Kabul — and the nation’s president fled.

With just weeks until the last U.S. troops were scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Western-backed government appeared to have collapsed. The Taliban swept back into power, leaving many Afghans fearful and uncertain of the future.

President Joe Biden addressed the situation on Monday, saying he stood “squarely” behind his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country. “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals. Get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and make sure Al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that. …Our mission was never supposed to have been nation-building.

“After 20 years, I’ve learned there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said. He added: “This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” but placed the blame on Afghan leaders who “gave up,” and the Afghan military, which he said “collapsed.”

An excerpt from FRONTLINE’s upcoming film America After 9/11 traces the roots of the U.S. military’s failure in Afghanistan back to the aftermath of the worst terror attack on American soil.

The night of the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, then-President George W. Bush addressed the United States. “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature,” he said.

The attacks were “an evil act,” said Thomas Ricks, an American journalist who covered the war on terror that followed. “But once you define yourself as good and the other side as bad, it’s a slippery slope, because you start thinking anything you do for your cause is good, and we wound up doing some very evil things in the name of goodness.”

Within the U.S. government, a plan took shape to go after the figure behind the attacks: Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. At the time, bin Laden was operating out of Afghanistan, harbored by the extremists running the country — the Taliban.

A small CIA strike force arrived in Afghanistan two weeks after the 9/11 attacks and used money to buy the cooperation of the Taliban’s enemies, rival militias and warlords.

Susan Glasser, an American journalist who covered the war in Afghanistan, said, “I remember immediately realizing the horrific choice that was being made. We got into business right away with the warlords who had been running and ruining Afghanistan for many years.”

American aerial bombardments allowed Afghan fighters to push the Taliban out of the country’s capital, Kabul. But bin Laden, the CIA’s primary target, disappeared. Bin Laden’s survival “fed into a defeated organization’s narrative that served to breathe new life into them and enabled them to survive,” according to Bruce Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism.

The post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan would also embroil the United States in what would become the longest war in American history — lasting through three presidencies.

President Barack Obama made the war in Afghanistan his priority. A surge of troops was sent to the country to turn the war around. An attempt to oust the Taliban from their stronghold in Marjah failed and U.S. troops faced constant counterattacks.

“What was thought to be a war that could be turned around with some additional troops really starts to look like it’s fundamentally unwinnable,” said Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an American journalist who covered the war. “Marjah brings the challenges of Afghanistan into much starker focus in the White House.”

Afghan civilians would continue to pay the price of war. Even before the Taliban’s latest lightning advance, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan warned in late July that civilian casualties were set to hit an unprecedented high this year if violence was not stemmed.

Premiering on PBS and online Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, “America After 9/11” traces the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks and devastating consequences across three presidencies. From the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the January 6th insurrection, “America After 9/11” exposes the legacy of September 11 – and the ongoing challenge it poses for the president and the country.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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