18 Essential Documentaries on Afghanistan, the Taliban and America’s Longest War

A still from Part One of the three-part FRONTLINE documentary "America and the Taliban."

A still from Part One of the three-part FRONTLINE documentary "America and the Taliban."

April 4, 2023

In August 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 the national capital, Kabul, and seized control of the country as the Western-backed government collapsed.

This month, a new, three-part FRONTLINE documentary series, America and the Taliban, investigates how America’s war in Afghanistan — which began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a bid to destroy Al Qaeda and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban — ended 20 years later in defeat.

“Over the last 18 months, I have come to Afghanistan to meet and interview numerous Taliban officials,” correspondent Martin Smith, who has been covering the Middle East and Afghanistan for FRONTLINE for two decades, says in Part One of the series. “Many have never spoken before. This is the story of how they won the war. This is also the story of how America’s defeat became inevitable — a story rooted in two decades of mistakes, miscalculations and hubris.”

Read more: Following Taliban Victory in Afghanistan, FRONTLINE Presses Officials About Conditions in the Country

Directed by Smith and Marcela Gaviria, America and the Taliban premieres in three parts on April 4, 11 and 25 on PBS stations and online. It is the latest of numerous FRONTLINE documentaries over the past 20 years, many of them from Smith and Gaviria, covering what would become America’s longest war — one that, for years, U.S. military leaders had privately conceded was not winnable.

As America and the Taliban unfolds, explore a collection of FRONTLINE documentaries that have examined how the U.S.-led war began, evolved and ended; how the Taliban fell and then underwent a resurgence; and how the lives of ordinary Afghan citizens have been affected by violence, instability and the Taliban’s return.

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.

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, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE



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